A Very Late Checkout
New York’s last Katrina evacuees prepare to depart (under duress) from the JFK Airport Holiday Inn.
By Matthew Philips
(Photo: William Mebane for New York Magazine)
This winter, FEMA put up over 300 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in New York City hotels. Almost all of them have gone back to their lives, their jobs. But not Theon Johnson. He’s currently sprawled out watching Halloween 5 on one of the two full-size beds in his room at the JFK Airport Holiday Inn. He is one of four evacuees still living in a hotel in the city.
The others left in February and March, when, after spending more than $500 million, FEMA stopped paying for hotel rooms housing some 40,000 evacuees across the country. That left many scrambling for places to live. But thanks to the city’s squatters-rights law, evacuees here were safe. Their rooms weren’t paid for, but since they’d been in them for more than 30 days, the hotels couldn’t just kick them out. Only a judge’s order could evict them.
And Johnson, 49, isn’t that motivated to leave. For one thing, AMC’s in the middle of its “Thrill Me” marathon. Next up, Gothika. “Halle Berry,” he says with lazy lust. These days he’s usually up all night—it’s hard to sleep on an empty stomach. When he has to, he’ll go outside and beg for change, but he doesn’t really like that too much. Most days he just showers and gets back in bed, showers and gets back in bed. Once a week he and another evacuee, a diabetic named Larry, walk to a church off the Van Wyck and get canned goods. When Johnson’s caseworker, Sharon, comes around, she gives him some bus passes and maybe a few bucks, but she’s getting frustrated. “They sit around on their butts watching TV. There’s only but so much I can do if they’re not willing to help themselves.”
After being flown here for free back in September, Johnson’s been at the Holiday Inn since Super Bowl Sunday. On April 21, the hotel served Johnson with three notices of occupancy termination, saying that it would begin court proceedings if he wasn’t out by May 9. He wasn’t, so it did. If the court boots him, Johnson could end up in one of the city’s homeless shelters. He’s been broke for over a month now. fema sent him $9,000 in housing aid, but he spent it all on booze, cigarettes, some clothes, and food—partying, mostly. “I spent my money just the way I wanted, and I think [fema] should send me some more,” he says. But it won’t. Johnson’s caseworker says fema offered to buy him a ticket home to New Orleans in February, but he didn’t take it. fema won’t now. So he’s stuck, at least until the Holiday Inn pays him to leave.
Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society have been negotiating a buyout deal for Johnson and the remaining evacuees, and expect a settlement—he heard about $1,200—imminently. He says he’ll use the money to get a room for a few nights and have some fun before flying back to his little house in New Orleans’ Third Ward. But for now, Gothika’s on. “Halle Berry,” Johnson says. “Halle . . . Berry.”