Wednesday, August 08, 2007

NPR Probes FEMA Parks re: Mental Health and Suicides

Stuck and Suicidal in a Post-Katrina Trailer Park by

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Stuck at Scenic Trails, many residents have no way out.

Trailers and cars at Scenic Trails trailer park.
EnlargeCheryl Gerber for NPR

The Scenic Trails trailer park in Perkinston, Miss., is home to more than 100 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Joey Noles and his dog by the big doghouse in front of his trailer.
EnlargeCheryl Gerber for NPR

Joey Noles built a big dog house outside of his FEMA trailer at Scenic Trails, where he has lived since Hurricane Katrina hit nearly two years ago.

All Things Considered, August 8, 2007 · The first morning of my visit to Scenic Trails, I was walking the path between some trailers when I bumped into a man named Tim Szepek. He was young, tall, and solidly good-looking. I asked if I could speak to him for a moment and he agreed. We found a spot of shade beneath a tree, and I started with what I considered a casual warm-up.

"What's it like to live around here?" I asked.

"Well," he replied, "I'll be honest."

"Ain't a day goes by when I don't think about killing myself."

And so began my time in Scenic Trails, a FEMA trailer park deep in the Mississippi woods where 100 families have lived in near isolation for close to two years.

Though Szepek was the first resident to tell me he wanted to commit suicide, he certainly wasn't the last. The day I spoke with him, three other residents confided the same.

The second person was Stephanie Sigur, a 28-year-old mother of two. She was sitting in front of her trailer at a picnic table, her daughter on her lap, when she explained that if it weren't a sin, she would have blown her brains out months ago.

"I know it's a bad thing to say because I'm a parent," she told me as her toddler played with her hair, "but I can't live like this no more."

Stephanie Sigur and Tim Szepek aren't alone. According to a recent study of 92 different Katrina FEMA parks published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, suicide attempts in Louisiana and Mississippi's parks are 79 times higher than the national average. Major depression is seven times the national rate.

When I first read those numbers, I found them hard to believe. But after three days at Scenic Trails, they made a lot more sense.

The residents there, in essence, are trapped. It is no longer possible for them to live outside the trailer parks. Prior to Katrina, most of the people who now live in the parks were renters.

Along the Mississippi coast, a family of four could rent a two- or three-bedroom apartment or small home for around $500 a month. But when the storm wiped the Mississippi coast clean, it took out all the housing infrastructure that supported these people. Most of them are minimum-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck. Today, a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Hancock County, where Scenic Trails is located, costs $800, $900, even $1,000 a month. This is an impossible amount of money for the people who live in the parks, and there is no immediate end in sight. FEMA says it would like to close the parks, but state and federal government plans to rebuild low-income housing for Mississippi coast residents have yet to break ground. Housing experts says it will probably take years to produce enough low-cost housing to move people out of the parks.

And so they are stuck. And the place they are stuck is not the kind of place you would want to spend an extended amount of time. For two years, many have lived in travel trailers intended for weekend use. Families of four housed in a space the size of most people's living rooms.

Worse, as time wears on, the communities around them seem to be falling into a kind of madness. At Scenic Trails, almost everyone at the camp has been burglarized at least once. Meth and cocaine addiction is rampant, and residents seem to be turning against one another.

Recently, the park has seen a rash of animal mutilations. One resident told me that her cat had come home bleeding — a long, thin razor cut along its leg. Another resident said his dog's throat had been cut, and several people reported that someone in the camp had been feeding anti-freeze to dogs.

No one seemed to have a particular suspect in mind. There was no specific theory of why. That was just the way things went at the camp nowadays. With no way to leave, people were angry and frustrated, and so they act out.

On the animals. On each other. On themselves.

Related NPR Stories

July 19, 2006 Drugs and Crime Plague FEMA Trailer Park Residents

NPR probes FEMA parks
Posted on Wed, Aug. 08, 2007 By JOSHUA NORMAN

-- The National Public Radio show "All Things Considered" will air a special report today on the mental health crisis among residents in the Coast's FEMA trailer parks.

The show, which includes an interview with Hancock County reporter J.R. Welsh, airs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting (90.3 FM on most Coast radios) at 4 p.m. and again at 6:30 p.m.
listen live to over 300 stations

The report's author, Alix Spiegel, said she got the idea for the story after reading an alarming study by the International Medical Corps published in March in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The study said suicide attempts in FEMA trailer parks were 79 percent higher than typical rates, and depression seven times that of national numbers.

"When I first read that I was like, 'Wow, that just doesn't sound right to me,'

" Spiegel said. "But when I got out of there I was like, damn, they really low-balled it. I was shocked by what I found there. There was one morning where four or five people told me they wanted to commit suicide."

For the "All Things Considered" report, Spiegel interviewed people in Hancock County and focused on the residents of Scenic Trails trailer park, many of whom told her it is overwhelmed by crime, including a recent rash of animal killings. Nearly every trailer has been burglarized at least once, and drug abuse is common.

"It's really a pretty serious situation," Spiegel said.

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