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As storm victims leave shelters for home, the most vulnerable stay behind with nowhere to go

September 4, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
It’s been 10 days since Hurricane Harvey made landfall and Houston’s convention center remains a refuge for many who are returning for supplies, medical help and legal aid. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on how Houston residents are struggling to regain normalcy and the fear that remains among undocumented immigrants to seek shelter and assistance.

Find all of our stories about Hurricane Harvey

JOHN YANG: At the height of Harvey’s fury in Houston, thousands of people sought refuge in the city’s Convention Center. While the numbers have gone down, for those who are still there, the sense of desperation is still high.

Special correspondent Marcia Biggs has our report.

MARCIA BIGGS, Special Correspondent: Its been one of the symbols of the Hurricane Harvey disaster, and the George R. Brown Convention Center is still bustling today.

At its highest point since Harvey made landfall 10 days ago, the center was catering to 10,000 people. Today, only around 1,400 remain as full residents. But those who remain are seemingly some of the most vulnerable.

CHERYL CONLEY, Staying at Shelter: I don’t have no and no family. I mean, if I do, they are just as flooded as well as I am.

MARCIA BIGGS: Cheryl Conley has been here since last Tuesday. She has congestive heart failure and epilepsy and hasn’t been able to reach her landlord, even though she has heard that her apartment is flooded and mold-infested.

How desperate are you to get out of here?

CHERYL CONLEY: On a scale from one to a million, a million. I’m trying to see why FEMA keeps my status pending, pending, pending, when I have a letter right here from the doctor saying that I’m critical care. I have congestive heart failure and seizures. And nobody is doing nothing about it.

MARCIA BIGGS: For now, she says she has nowhere to go.

People like Cheryl are turning to the legion of lawyers set up in the lobby.

Rita Lucido is a private lawyer and activist coordinating the effort. She says the biggest issues today surround filing for benefits and knowing about renter’s rights.

RITA LUCIDO, Volunteer Attorney: Talk to your landlord about getting your belongings out, if anything’s left. Ask them if it’s safe to go in. And you can negotiate with your landlord to transfer your security deposit to another apartment. Those are the kind of really very practical legal answers for folks who are in a precarious situation.

MARCIA BIGGS: But renter’s rights are way beyond the problems some here are facing.

Donna Morrissey is the Red Cross spokesperson.

DONNA MORRISSEY, Spokeswoman, Red Cross: We have a wide array of people with special needs. We have people who are in wheelchairs, people with very serious medical conditions, people who are homeless.

The point to remember is that there are a lot of significant problems that any city has prior to the storm making landfall, and they are going to be here after the storm clears and we’re trying to help rebuild.

MARCIA BIGGS: Cheynna Galvan, homeless for two years, had been living under a bridge. Her local food pantry shut down during the storm and she came to the Convention Center.

CHEYNNA GALVAN, Staying at Shelter: I was very grateful to have this place to come to.

MARCIA BIGGS: How long will you stay?

CHEYNNA GALVAN: Until I can get out on my feet or until they shut this down. And then after that, I don’t know where I will go.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, in a way, this storm gave you a place to go?

CHEYNNA GALVAN: It did. It did give me a place to go to.

MARCIA BIGGS: John, as you can see here behind me here, people have been coming and going all day long.

When I asked the Red Cross how long this shelter is going to be open, I was told there is no set date for closure.

JOHN YANG: So, no end in sight, Marcia.

It’s now been 10 days since Harvey made landfall. What sorts of people are there now?

MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a real mix of people.

You definitely have those who have gone back to their homes, but they are coming back every day for supplies, for medical help, for legal aid. But you also have those residents that are still here that haven’t been able to go home. And for them, it’s a very bleak picture.

They’re homeless. They have got disabilities. These are people that have been struggling since way before the storm and these are issues that have just been compounded. They have been trying to get back on their feet before and they have just been knocked back down.

JOHN YANG: Marcia, the federal officials here in Washington have said that people shouldn’t have feared to go to shelters, people who needed food, water, shelters shouldn’t have worried about an immigration roundup and they said they’d not be asked their immigration status. Are people trusting that?

MARCIA BIGGS: There is a lot of fear.

I spoke to one woman today who lives in an apartment complex. And she was here getting some supplies for people in that building. She told me that there had been some undocumented workers in her apartment complex that had been evicted because they had been unable to pay their rent.

They hadn’t been able to work during the storm. Of course, they are too afraid to come here for supplies, for shelter and for that necessary legal aid. This is an issue that is definitely on the minds of the lawyers who are volunteering here.

Of course, they’re trying to help those immigrants who still have cases pending. And, of course, if they don’t have a home for their summons to appear in court to plead their case, if they can’t receive that summons, then they may be penalized for failure to appear.

JOHN YANG: Marcia Biggs in Houston, thank you very much.

MARCIA BIGGS: Thank you.