Thursday, October 20, 2005
Warren Stevens is an American refugee. Maybe. He might also be a good storyteller.
He’s standing at the Holman/68 exit of Highway One with a cardboard sign that reads, “Hurricane Vet needs help donations food God Bless.” A steady stream of cars wade through the flooded congestion of this intersection. The commuters look either embarrassed or oblivious as they float by in their Volvos and Mercedes on their way through the California sea of dreams. Stevens is planted mid-current like a dire warning, unmistakable as a buoy on the open ocean. The man’s adrift. Cast away on the Monterey Peninsula, he says, by two hurricanes.
Slightly slouched, with a resigned look on his walrus features, he stands at the crossroads of several of America’s most elite communities, trying to beg $40 for a room at the Economy Inn down on North Fremont in Seaside. He’s only got $15. There is a backpack and a duffel bag at his feet. Other than the clothes on his back, these are his only possessions.
According to Stevens, he was living on the streets in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit last month. He took shelter in the Superdome and was eventually evacuated to the Houston area with 28,000 other people. Stevens says he found himself stuck in the Astrodome, riding out Hurricane Rita.
While rumors flew that aid agencies such as FEMA or the Red Cross would be issuing checks and clothing, conditions deteriorated, and Stevens found himself growing increasingly desperate. He says he needs a special machine to compensate for his sleep apnea, and suffers from diabetes “in his feet.” He also claims to have only one kidney. He says the doctors tell him he’ll end up dead if he doesn’t get off the street. They may be right. He looks like hell. Like something found at a minus tide. He looks washed ashore.
After “a week or a week and a half” in the Houston Astrodome, Stevens says, “someone from an aid agency” asked him where he was from. When he told them the last place he’d lived was Salinas, he found himself with a bus ticket back to Monterey County and, he says, a promise that there would be someone at the bus station to pick him up.
“I got off the bus last Monday and nobody,” Stevens says. “I tried to contact some people, but it’s hard. I don’t know. I’m stuck here now. I got no place to go. I got a deal at the Economy Inn, this medical service brings me a sleeping machine for my apnea, but I’m having a hard time making the forty bucks. And the weekends are almost twice as expensive. I don’t know what I’m gonna do on Friday.”
It’s a brutal story. Whether it’s true is almost impossible to gauge. An official at the Greater Houston Area Chapter Red Cross confirms that bus tickets were indeed given to Hurricane victims encamped in the Astrodome, but local Red Cross officials have no record of Stevens. Officials from FEMA, the organization that has caught so much flak for its mishandling of the hurricanes, are almost impossible to speak with in person, and the few I managed to get on the phone had no way of knowing whether a Warren Stevens had been given a bus ticket from Houston to Salinas.
Regardless, it is true that the destitute have taken the brunt of the punishment from these hurricanes. When Rita hit, the city of Houston was chastised for leaving its own homeless behind, and it makes sense that city officials would spring $165 for a one-way ticket to get someone off their streets. Yet, at press time, there was no way of confirming whether or not the aid agencies were truly responsible for setting this man adrift.
Nonetheless, Stevens is here. I received a phone call from him on Friday night at 9:30pm asking if I’d had any luck with his case. He didn’t have enough money for the motel and had nowhere to go. As of Monday night he was back in the motel room, doggedly making phone calls to FEMA and the Red Cross, trying to get some answers to his current predicament. It’s a situation just bizarre enough to be true in bureaucratic America. The real question, of course, is how many more Warren Stevens are bobbing aimlessly on the streets of America like corks?