With Hurricane Katrina roaring toward her childhood home, Janell Walker fled New Orleans with only a few changes of clothes, important papers in a Ziploc bag, her 10-year-old son, his PlayStation and their guinea pig.
In the month since, she has rented rooms and stayed with relatives in crowded apartments from Mississippi to Oakland, buying just a set of towels. She can only imagine what’s left of the three-bedroom house she bought a year ago in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Already ravaged by Katrina, it was flooded a second time by Hurricane Rita.
But this week, Walker will once again have a place to call home.
She and her son, Charles, will move into a light-filled, two-bedroom apartment in West Berkeley with a balcony overlooking the street. The carpet will be new, the walls freshly painted, and there will be clean sheets on the beds, clothes in the closets, and red beans and rice in the cupboard.
While many of the 1,700 hurricane evacuees who landed in the Bay Area are struggling to find affordable housing, the Walkers are among eight lucky families being given move-in-ready apartments through a collaborative effort by the city of Berkeley, two nonprofits and a school.
Volunteers spent Friday and Saturday installing carpets, patching and painting walls, lugging furniture and sorting through stacks of donations, from children’s board games to cheese graters.
"People in Berkeley are suckers for a cause. They’re really willing to put their hands where their hearts are," said Michael McDowell, board president of Rebuilding Together Albany-Berkeley-Emeryville. McDowell’s local chapter of a national nonprofit that rehabilitates homes for seniors and disabled residents is fixing up the apartments for the Katrina survivors.
Berkeley-based Affordable Housing Associates, a nonprofit developer, offered the eight apartments in its 48-unit building for low-income families on Seventh Street. The families who survived Katrina were referred there from an assistance office for evacuees that Berkeley has established in its Civic Center on Milvia Street. The center also helps evacuees contact FEMA, make doctors appointments, and search for jobs.
"They can stay here as long as they want to," said Angela Cavanaugh, director of property management for Affordable Housing Associates.
The Berkeley Housing Authority will allow the new residents to apply for Section 8 housing vouchers, even if they didn’t previously receive federal housing subsidies. If the new residents find work and no longer qualify for the vouchers, they would be able to pay below-market rents in the building -- which are $900 a month for two-person families earning less than $40,000 a year, Cavanaugh said.
Once the apartments were located, McDowell and his wife, Carolyn Weil, put out the call for donations through their daughter’s school, Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito. Within days, furniture and sacks of food, clothing, bedding and toys were pouring in.
"The kids were elated to have the chance to do something," said Kathryn Lee, service learning director at the K-8 private school. "It’s great to send money, but you don’t know where it goes or what it does. This is something tangible."
The school plans to adopt the families and hopes they will become part of the community, starting with a school picnic today.
First-graders are making quilts, and second-graders have created a welcome book for the new families with favorite places to go and restaurant reviews. Eighth-graders are setting up a babysitting pool to offer their service to the new families, several of which are headed by single mothers.
"I’m grateful for everything. I can use anything," Walker told Lee as a volunteer gave her a choice of pink or white towels Friday. Lee handed her a new football for Charles and said she would get the word out that his real love is basketball. While Charles is adjusting well and has made new friends at his Oakland school, Walker said it has been difficult telling him she can’t afford purchases like the size-11 Jordans he wants.
Walker, 27, said she hopes she can make it in the Bay Area.
New Orleans "is part of me, that’s who I am," said Walker, who had never before left the South. "But you need change."
A police officer in New Orleans, Walker had been on sick leave with an inflamed pancreas when Katrina hit, so she was able to evacuate.
She left behind the house she grew up in, which her mother had rented. Walker had scraped together the money to buy it the year before, but couldn’t afford insurance. Her grandmother lived next door, and most family lived nearby.
Now her family is scattered from Virginia to California, and all of their family photographs, except for those tucked in people’s wallets, are gone.
But Walker has shed few tears.
"I don’t have time to be depressed and sad. ... It’s no good for me or my son. I don’t see the point of dwelling on it," said Walker, who would like to find work as a police dispatcher, work she did before becoming an officer.
One of the few times she did cry was at a banquet held for hurricane victims at a Berkeley restaurant.
"I thought people here would be arrogant and snobbish, but they’re not at all," she said. "I never knew people cared like this."
E-mail Janine DeFao at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle