As they've cycled through six shelters over the past month, Gerald and Cris Burkins have celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary, reunited with their nine Chihuahuas and earned the nicknames "House Mama and House Papa."
Those have been the highlights for them over weeks marked by one tragic event after another. Their house in Walker filled with more than five feet of water, forcing them from shelter to shelter as they remained separated from family. Later they learned their daughter's boyfriend was in a car wreck that killed him and they still haven't been able to see her. Throughout it all, the couple has made little progress as they try to work out how to buy a car and rent an apartment, both key to them being able to move on.
The Burkins say they have lost track of time because it does not matter any more for them. They are just two of the more than 850 people still left in shelters across East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, East Feliciana and Tangipahoa parishes, down substantially from a high just after the mid-August floods of more than 11,000 people statewide. If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.
More and more people leave the shelters every day. The Burkins say they are happy for their friends who have left, but they and the 90 others still staying at the L.M. Lockhart Center in Denham Springs wonder if anyone remembers them.
"The aftermath is worse than the actual flood," said Gerald Burkins. The first time he felt like people in shelters hadn't been forgotten about was when snowballs were delivered, and Burkins said he was in tears as he and his wife slurped down their cherry-flavored treats.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has teams at every shelter across the region who are making sure that people at shelters are registered with the agency. FEMA spokesman Alberto Pillot said people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency's transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.
Pillot stressed that FEMA is only able to meet the immediate needs of people, and that their housing programs are not long-term solutions. He said once FEMA gives someone the assistance they need, that person is responsible for finding the rental unit or hotel room or next place to go.
After the floodwaters rose in Brenda Hamner’s rental house in Denham Springs during the floo…
The American Red Cross and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge are among the agencies trying to help people in shelters figure out the options for their next form of housing. Catholic Charities Executive Director David Aguillard said few rental units and hotel rooms available have made it hard for people to transition.
And people who say they are searching every day for a way to leave shelters are becoming discouraged. Without transportation, good leads on a place to live and a way to pay for it, shelter residents said they do not know how they will be able to move on.
"The attitude changed," said Tyrone Trent, who has been staying at the Baton Rouge River Center with his wife, Donna Miles, since it opened last month. Their rental home off of Winbourne Avenue in Baton Rouge flooded. "When people did things for you in the beginning, it was 'We want to help.' Now, it's changed. We didn't ask to be homeless."
Trent and Miles said they increasingly worry about being seen as a nuisance and they hope shelters will not close before they find their next homes. The River Center shelter, which still had more than 500 residents as of Friday, is expected to close September 15.
The shelter at Celtic Media Centre is expected to close by the end of the week once all of t…
As shelters have closed and consolidated, those staying at them have been bounced around, each time trying to adjust to a new large space full of cots and a new group of people that they share their lives with. The Burkins say they consider the friends they met at their shelters to be family, and say they hope to have a reunion once all of them have moved onto better circumstances.
Jean Gros, also staying at the L.M. Lockhart shelter, has moved around as much as anyone. When her double-wide trailer in Denham Springs started to flood, she stayed at Healing Place Church, before being moved to a few different shelters and then ending up at the North Park shelter in Denham Springs.
Gros at one point felt unwell and had to spend a few days in the hospital. When she was ready to be released, she found out the North Park shelter was closed and she had to go to Lockhart instead.
While she was away, friends at the shelters took care of her pets, a golden dog with the short legs of a corgi named Misery, and a white cat with one blue eye and one green eye named Sugar Kitty.
She wakes up early every morning to play with them. Gros had two years left of paying off her home, and had been dreaming about the day that she could use her income from being on disability to pay for something other than her house.
"Maybe I could use my disability to buy something, whether it's a new dress or whatever," she said, tearing up as she played with Misery and Sugar Kitty on a sweltering day outside. "And then the floods came, and they took everything except for my animals."
Those staying at shelters say it has been hard to manage the spectrum of emotions that they've experienced. Dan Halyburton, a Red Cross spokesman, said Red Cross mental health teams and spiritual care teams are working with residents in shelters and trying to help them stay in good spirits.
Aguillard said Catholic Charities also has workers at shelters talking to people staying there and trying to help them start to heal. Catholic Charities is also working with people to remove their obstacles from leaving shelters, by giving bus passes to people or helping people patch tires on cars that will make them drivable again, he said.
"The longer you're there, the more traumatic the experience can become," Aguillard said.
Amid the cots, canines and cats that cluttered a sound stage Monday at Celtic Media Centre, …
No matter who they talk to, Trent and Miles said they wonder if people realize how bad things are for them. The two of them know that they will return to their cots every night while social workers, volunteers, journalists and others who they talk to and who try to help them will be able to go back home.
"Everybody has gone on with their life," Miles said. "Their life never stopped, but ours did."
Gerald and Cris Burkins said having each other has been what's helped them get through. They left Gerald's father and their dogs when their home started flooding and went weeks without knowing if they were alive before running into each other at a shelter. They now sleep alongside each other -- reunited with both of Gerald's parents -- while the dogs are outside.
The best thing they can do right now to take their minds off of what they're going through is to help the people around them, they said. Gerald started volunteering for the Red Cross and Cris especially likes to tend to the elderly people living alongside her.
She gives hugs to everyone she meets, and gives them the same greeting: "Welcome to my home."