A Ninth Ward family's way
The fairy tale began to unravel in the most unlikely of locations: The electronics aisle at Target. It was late September, the day after the Anderson family, as they had come to be known, first made their journey from a shelter in Houma, Louisiana, to a home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The family, all of them refugees from Hurricane Katrina, had relocated to the Midwest at the invitation of a Catholic church group based in Kalamazoo. And, while they were hardly the only people making such a transition in the weeks after the hurricane battered New Orleans, the story of the Anderson family seems to be unique.
The Kalamazoo church group hadn't simply arranged to find the family housing. They had also remodeled the house and promised to provide transportation, job opportunities, and even private school tuition for the young children. Before the storm, the Anderson family lived in New Orleans's Ninth Ward, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The family wasn't destitute; the adults were all high school graduates. But they were working in service jobs like hotel housekeeping and nursing-home care--in other words, part of what most experts would call the working poor. Now, just weeks after losing most of their possessions to floodwaters and narrowly escaping from Katrina's aftermath, it was almost as if they had won the lottery.
Of course, the volunteers in Kalamazoo couldn't anticipate all of the family's needs. The church group, which was white, was particularly sensitive to the possibility that the family, which was black, might have different tastes in clothing and personal-care items. So the group had collected a series of Target gift cards, said to be worth several hundred dollars, from individual and corporate sponsors around Kalamazoo. And, since the family didn't yet have a car, Ann Berglund, one of the women who had worked hardest on the relocation project, decided to drive them over to Target on that September day herself.
Three members of the family came along on that initial trip, including Randall Anderson, the charismatic 33-year-old father and husband, who had become the de facto head of the household. Although it was a tight squeeze into Ann's Jeep, nobody complained. And, when the group arrived at Target, spirits were still high. But then Ann saw Randall picking out what looked like a large music player, and she became concerned. She felt she had an obligation to the people who had donated the cards to make sure the money was really being spent to help the Anderson family meet its most basic needs. As she explained later, "I just didn't think the first item should be a gigantic boom box."
After Ann suggested that the music player wouldn't fit in her car, Randall ended up getting a smaller, less expensive model, while the rest of the family stocked up on essentials like shampoo. Nothing more was said right then, but, for Randall, this was the first of several incidents in which he detected disapproval over spending priorities from Ann or the other woman heading up the relocation project, Lynn McLeod. And he resented it.
Randall's family unit now included five adults and four children, all living under one roof for the first time. What was so unreasonable about their purchasing an extra DVD player or a few more televisions, particularly since they had those things back when they lived in New Orleans? "They treated us like children," Randall said later. "Like we never had our own home before, we didn't know what to buy." Randall's feelings only intensified over the next few weeks, particularly once Ann and Lynn made it clear that they'd be holding on to the gift cards--in effect, supervising how the family spent the money. For the next few months, the tension built over a series of new disputes--about everything from missed doctor's appointments to questions about the use of federal relief money. Things went downhill from there, and, today, virtually nobody connected to the experience has anything good to say about it. Probably the only thing on which both the church group and the family members agree is that the project was a failure.
If true, that would be a depressing coda to a story that began nearly a year ago, when images of desperate people waving white flags from highway overpasses and lying sweltering and sick in the Superdome reawakened the conscience of the middle class. Hurricane Katrina introduced America to the Ninth Ward and to the mostly poor, mostly black people who had lived and died there. It also rekindled the national interest in improving lives like theirs, especially in light of the government's recent failure to protect them. For the first time since the welfare reform discussions of the 1990s, poverty was back on the political agenda--along with the debate over how to combat it.
Public attention moved on quickly. But, in the meantime, as the refugees have streamed out across the country and, occasionally, into marginally better economic and cultural situations, some test cases have emerged. The Anderson family may represent the most interesting of these--a unique opportunity to see whether a black family from one of the nation's most notorious ghettos would start acting like part of the white bourgeoisie if it suddenly inherited a house, money, and opportunities to advance economically. The answer seems to be no, at least as far as the Kalamazoo sponsors are concerned. But whether that says more about the family that was supposedly being rescued or the people who thought they were doing the rescuing--well, that's a little more complicated to sort out.
It's more complicated, first and foremost, because the Anderson family didn't necessarily need rescuing, at least in the classic anti-poverty sense. The Ninth Ward may have been one of America's most blighted and crime-infested neighborhoods. But it still had its quieter corners, inhabited by people who made enough to carve out a decent existence--people who, generally speaking, had already lifted themselves a rung or two up the economic ladder and were living comfortably.
Carolyn McKenzie, the family's 40-year-old matriarch, was one of those people. A native of Mississippi who had three daughters at a young age and lived in the projects for part of her life, she eventually found work as a housekeeper at the Hotel Monteleone, in the French Quarter. It was there--over lunch at the cafeteria--that she met Terrell Woods, an assistant cook who would become her fiance in 2005. With the money he and Carolyn earned, they were able to rent a shotgun-style, three-bedroom house with enough room for two of Carolyn's daughters and her grandson. They also had money to get new appliances and furniture.
The night that Hurricane Katrina struck, the family took advantage of an offer by the Monteleone to house employees and their relatives. That's where Randall joined them: He was married to Carolyn's other daughter, Tyneshia Seeden, and the father of her youngest child, four-month-old Deiontae. The storm itself proved easy enough to weather: just a lot of high wind and rain. But then came word that the entire Ninth Ward was underwater. At that point, Randall and Tyneshia decided to split off from the group in order to track down Randall's mother, who had been left in a hospital in Gretna, across the river, where the couple now lived. That left Carolyn, Terrell, and Carolyn's other daughters in charge of four children altogether, including Deiontae, who had-- according to Tyneshia--nothing more than a diaper and a pacifier. The group ended up at the notorious Convention Center shelter but decided that, after a night of stepping over dead bodies and hiding from thugs, they were better off taking their chances with the elements. So they promptly made their way for the Interstate-10 elevated highway that ran through the city's central corridor, where they subsisted for two days on stray water bottles and other remnants left on the pavement until they managed to hitch a ride out of town on an empty water supply truck.
In Raceland, a small bayou town about an hour south of the city, the truck stopped so that people could use the bathrooms and the driver could make an inventory of everybody aboard. The passengers had gotten back in the truck when they heard shouts outside; when they lifted the doors again, heavily armed police officers were standing there, pointing guns. Somebody had apparently called the police, thinking the group was trying to rob the gas station. The police stood down when the driver explained the situation, eventually opening the store themselves and distributing drinks and food to the refugees. Afterward, they transferred the passengers to a shelter in Houma, the next city over.
The shelter was nothing like the Convention Center: It was clean and well- organized. But nobody really felt settled until Randall and Tyneshia finally rejoined the family a few days later. (In Gretna, the couple had learned that Randall's mother was safe at a nursing home.) And, even after the reunion, stability remained elusive. The family could not stay at the shelter forever-- and it quickly became apparent that, despite President Bush's soothing words, federal help might be slow, ineffectual, or both.
Writing for The New Yorker, Katherine Boo filed a dispatch from the shelter in which she chronicled the stratagem many families employed: putting on a good face that might attract interest from charitable organizations around the country that were looking to help hurricane victims--or, at least, the most worthy among them. The Anderson family decided to do the same, which, in their case, meant putting 18-year-old Alicia front and center. Obliging a photographer from the local newspaper, the Houma Courier, she posed for a series called "faces of katrina." She was wearing a white polo shirt and khaki pants, as if she'd just stepped out of parochial school; under her picture, a caption explained, "She is grateful for all the help from the shelter and thankful for her life and family."
Lynn McLeod couldn't handle the images of Katrina's devastation flashing across the TV screen. At one point, she says, she literally burst into tears-- until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and thought, well, that's pathetic. If she was so upset, she ought to do something about it. Her parents had once undertaken such an endeavor, sponsoring a family from Vietnam that had relocated to South Bend, Indiana, during the early '70s. Maybe, she began to wonder, she could do the same thing. After her husband, Bryan, mentioned that his church men's group was also looking for a way to help hurricane victims, Lynn started to think about an old, vacant house she usually saw on the way home.
It was a split-level, ranch-style house just a few doors down from where Lynn lived, in a racially mixed, middle-class section of town near the campus of Western Michigan University. With five bedrooms, the house itself would be perfect for a large family--the kind of dwelling, Lynn figured, that would be in high demand for hurricane victims. But it was also something of a mess. Lynn approached the property's manager with an offer: If he'd agree to accept fema rental vouchers for 18 months, the church group would fix up the home and the property. The manager agreed, Lynn says, and soon the group embarked on its renovation project.
One of the people who heard about the project, through a website posting, was Ann Berglund. Like Lynn, she had been stirred to action by the images on television; and, like Lynn, she was a housewife with spare time to devote to a cause. She showed up at the house one morning, thinking she'd end up wielding a paint brush or maybe a mop. But, within a few days, she had effectively become the project's site manager, directing the renovation efforts on the ground while Lynn worked the phones from an office, making all of the other arrangements necessary to enable a relocation.
It was quite an enterprise. According to Ann and Lynn, the college students who previously occupied the house had trashed it--apparently because of a fight they had with the landlord--kicking in walls and shattering glass bottles all over the downstairs den. In the span of about three weeks, the volunteers managed to undo all of that. After sweeping away the mess and repairing the walls, they painted and acquired brand-new appliances. They even got the local Radisson Plaza Hotel to donate furniture. Logs show that hundreds of people would eventually contribute to the effort--some of them local students fulfilling public service requirements, others just folks in the community.
One big issue remained, of course: finding a family. Through Catholic Charities, Lynn reached Roxanne Bergeron, the Houma shelter manager in charge of resettling the displaced hurricane victims holed up there. Lynn had heard that some religious charities were limiting themselves to families of the same denomination or demanding that the families be traditional, with no unwed mothers and such. Lynn made it clear to Roxanne that the Kalamazoo Catholics had no such restrictions. They'd take people of any faith--and they weren't too picky about marriage or other family structure issues, either. The only thing that mattered, Lynn said, was that it be a family with young children, since that's who the church group felt probably needed the most help.
That led Roxanne to the Anderson family, as the shelter officials had started calling them. Roxanne had come to know them a bit better than some of the other refugees, in part because they seemed so visibly traumatized by their separation during the storm. Indeed, because of that separation, they said they were determined to stay together as one family. But that made placing them difficult: It was tough to find housing even for childless couples, let alone a family unit that now numbered nine. The house in Kalamazoo seemed like an ideal solution, particularly since Randall's mother was from Detroit, giving him ties to the area. Roxanne was particularly optimistic about the possibility, because the Anderson family seemed like the type that would thrive in such an environment, given their work history and relatively stable income before the storm.
Roxanne asked the Anderson family if they would be willing to relocate, and, after discussing the situation, they agreed. Soon, word spread around the shelter about the family that was getting adopted by the town in Michigan. It seemed like proof that miracles were possible--that perhaps something good could come out of something almost unimaginably bad.
It was around 1 a.m. on September 21 when a volunteer van carrying the Anderson family arrived in Kalamazoo, following a three-hour ride from the airport in Flint, Michigan. Just a handful of volunteers met them at the house, Ann and Lynn among them, figuring the group would be tired from the journey and in desperate need of rest. But, a couple of days later, the official business began.
It started with a house call from a visiting nurse that Ann and Lynn had recruited to assess the family's health and make sure there were no critical medical needs. Over the next few days, the two women shepherded the family through a carefully orchestrated plan designed to integrate them into middle- class Kalamazoo life--registering the kids for school, obtaining drivers' licenses for the adults, and so on. The work was tedious and, frequently, timeconsuming, particularly when it involved trying to track down official records still in Louisiana. But it was the right thing to do, Ann remembers thinking, because it's the way she'd want somebody to treat her if she were ever in the same situation. "In my view, we were doing the responsible thing," she says today. "It would have felt kind of rude to just hand them the key and say, 'Bye, have a nice life.'"
But, to the Anderson family, the attention wasn't entirely welcome. They certainly had no desire to be abandoned, Randall agrees, but they also needed time to breathe. "From day one in the shelter, everybody kept coming in, saying, `Oh, we feel so sorry for you, but what do you plan to do next?' We ain't even had a chance to get all this, to absorb what happened to us. ... The same thing happened once we got here. It was like, every day somebody is basically telling us, `Tomorrow you got to go do this.'" According to Randall, one of the women with the church group gave the family a calendar and suggested they hang it on the wall. "She said, `I wrote down the whole week, what you're going to have to do, and at this time, and at this time, and at this time.' And basically we just said ... `Leave us alone for at least one weekend. Let us get our minds straight through all of this and have a little family time to get our heads together.'"
More trouble followed. Shortly after the family first arrived, Lynn told the Kalamazoo Gazette, "These are not charity cases; this is a humanitarian effort. We are restoring their lives, and they will pick up the pieces themselves. They will know what to do with themselves, and they will know what to do with their families." But, within a few weeks, she, Ann, and others working with the church group started to have doubts. A group member who happened to be a local physician had arranged for his medical group to take on the family as patients, initially for no charge. Ann then took them to the office and gave them business cards, complete with the practice's address and phone number. But, soon, word spread that some family members were not showing up for their appointments.
Money, though, was the overriding concern. Ann and Lynn kept warning the Andersons about the intense Michigan winters--and the cost of winter clothing and heating bills. Yet, even though the adults were finding work and making money, Ann and Lynn didn't see the Andersons making any preparations. At one point, they heard the Anderson family had acquired a car, even though the church group had provided them with a minivan. Meanwhile, Lynn started hearing from the landlord: He said he hadn't received any rent.
In November, both sides agreed to sit down for a meeting at the house. The official agenda was to work out the arrangements for the one big piece of unfinished business from the move: transporting Randall's mother, still in a Louisiana nursing home, to Michigan. The unofficial agenda was to talk about the growing discontent and, hopefully, reduce it. But precisely the opposite happened. When the church group's representatives arrived at the house, Lynn says, a few of the family members showed off some new tattoos that they had gotten. And she noticed that Randall had acquired some new accoutrements, as well. "He's a huge man, with a full length leather jacket and a watch as big as a saucer," Lynn says. "They were showing us their new tattoos, and the kids had no coats." When the group sat down at the kitchen table, tempers began to flare when Lynn started asking questions about whether they had used fema relief money properly and whether Randall had taken some of his mother's money--and how he had been spending it.
Randall took strong exception to the accusations, denying impropriety. Later, he and the rest of the family would tell a very different story about the events that had led up to that meeting. They say they missed a few medical appointments, but only because they thought it was more important to find jobs; they deny--emphatically--that they ever skimped on clothing or other essentials for the children. As for the electronics that seemed to bother Ann and Lynn so much, they say they just wanted to replace what they had in New Orleans, such as a television for every adult. "Before we came here, we lived nice, we had what we wanted," Tyneshia says. "If [Ann and Lynn] had lost their house, they would try to get back everything they had if they could, the same way that we did." (Both Randall and Tyneshia also say they bought most of their televisions with their own money.)
Yes, they got another car, they said. But it was a cheap one--a used green station wagon--and pretty much essential for such a large family to function properly, given that three young children had to get to school and most of the adults were working at overlapping hours. "They were like, `Why do you need another car? Where is the money coming from?'" Carolyn says. "And I'm like, `That's really none of your business. We needed another vehicle.'"
As for the rent, Randall and Carolyn acknowledge that they hadn't paid it as of November. But they said there was a good reason: They hadn't realized they owed it, let alone the amount and where it was supposed to go. According to the family, when they accepted the offer to relocate to Kalamazoo, they assumed that they would get to live in the house rent-free for up to 18 months. (Roxanne Bergeron, the woman who had managed the shelter, confirms that the initial offer from Kalamazoo was for "free rent"--at the time, nobody said anything about using fema vouchers.) And, while Ann says that notes from the November meeting show that the church group provided Randall with the landlord's contact information and the amount the family owed, the family says it was impossible to pay afterward because they couldn't get the landlord to return their calls and give them a formal lease. And, without a formal lease, they said, it was impossible to get the fema rental assistance that was supposed to cover the costs. (When contacted, the landlord declined to comment.)
By the end of the meeting, the Anderson family had made it clear what they wanted: for everybody to mind their own business. Both Ann and Lynn say they did precisely that afterward, disengaging from the project and leaving it in the hands of Paula White, a nurse whom the church group had asked previously to help the family. (At the time, Ann was starting a new job, anyway.) But, while the tension subsided, the Anderson family's problems with the landlord didn't. They never did pay the rent, and, in the late spring, they got a letter demanding they vacate the house. They decided to do that, and, on Independence Day, they decamped for a house on Kalamazoo's South Side, the unofficial city ghetto.
On a recent July morning, I stopped by the Andersons' new house, a two-story detached home catty-corner from a large discount store. Carolyn led me into the family's living room, still mostly empty save for a couch and a big-screen television-- donated by Terrell's boss at the Radisson, where he now worked-- that was turned on. Shortly into our conversation, Randall arrived home from his direct-care job at a hospice.
As he sat in a chair, gently juggling Deiontae in his thick arms, he said he doesn't want anybody to think he or his family isn't grateful. He just feels like the Kalamazoo church group misled the family--failing to live up to the promises made before the move last September. "A lot of people are doing right by us, and we appreciate it all; we're not even mad at the people who got us out here, really," Anderson says in a calm voice. "Just particularly Lynn McLeod, who was the leader. She's telling everybody different stories. ... She's basically the whole problem."
Ann and Lynn, in turn, say the Anderson family is lying. Lynn is blunt with her frustration, accusing the family of "gluttonous, piggish behavior," and she is disappointed by the result. Ann is a bit more circumspect--and philosophical. "I think, when you give, you give freely," she says. "And you cannot have an expectation once you give."
Despite their frustration, both Lynn and Ann remain proud of what the community accomplished--and committed to the idea that the kind of project they undertook really could work. As proof, they point to the success of another black family they helped relocate from New Orleans to Kalamazoo. That family, also from the Ninth Ward, has thrived. And they have shown the Kalamazoo community activists the kind of appreciation they hoped to get from the Anderson family. A few months ago, they invited the volunteers who helped them to attend a dinner. "They would not allow us to bring so much as a can of beans to the party," Ann says. "They said, `No, it's our way to thank you for what you've done.' It's a very different experience."
Still, it's also a different group of people. Jesse Spells, at 51 the family's senior member, left the projects long ago. The son of a two-parent family--something "unusual for that particular area," he notes--he not only finished high school but went through two years of college, eventually working in electronics manufacturing. "I was pretty blessed," he says. His family has no young children, either: It's just Jesse and his girlfriend, plus her college- age son and the son's girlfriend, along with the girlfriend's family. Nor do they live under one roof: They're in three separate apartments.
Moreover, for all of the tensions, the Andersons seem to have settled into a relatively comfortable existence themselves. Even Ann and Lynn take some delight in the apparent success of Terrell: While he isn't making nearly as much at the Radisson as he did when he was at the Monteleone, he hopes to move up the ladder--and, given the high regard his boss has for him, he may do so in the not-too-distant future. Randall, Tyneshia, and Carolyn all have jobs, too. Their new house is neither as big nor as nice as the one they first had in Kalamazoo, but--with a front porch and high-ceilinged living room--it's not exactly a dump, either. And, while Kalamazoo's South Side has a bad reputation locally, it is, if anything, a step up from their home in New Orleans. "In the Ninth Ward ... people were selling drugs all day long. You couldn't even get out your own door without seeing people selling drugs," Carolyn says. "For the kids, Michigan is a much better place."
Paula White, the parish nurse charged with following the case, is one of the few people connected to this story with anything resembling distance. And, while she has understood the church group's concerns, particularly regarding the family's financial priorities, she also remembers something Randall told her one day: "Randy had said to us, our style is to manage day to day, not month to month and year to year. And, if we can make it today, that's fine, and we'll worry about tomorrow when it comes." She says she sees that attitude frequently in low-income communities--perhaps because, in so many cases, worrying about the long term would simply be too daunting given their daily struggles.
The church group sponsoring the Anderson family clearly hoped that they would break out of that mindset. And, writ large, that was always the unspoken hope many people held about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--that the experience of starting anew might actually leave the hurricane's victims better off than before, that they would find not just opportunities but renewed ambition, as well. But that's quite a leap to expect from people who went through what the Anderson family did, whatever their race or economic background. "These people lost everything they had, the life that they had built, whatever it was--good, bad, or indifferent," Paula notes. "You talk about people going through grief needing a year or more. One of the things they tell you is, `Don't make major changes.' Yet look at all the changes they had to make in a year." Indeed, twelve months after surviving Katrina, the Andersons are living in a decent house, holding down decent jobs, and are even, according to their own estimation, getting by just a little better than they were before. All things considered, maybe that's not such a bad ending after all.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article originally ran in the August 13, 2006 issue of the magazine.