The devastation of Hurricane Harvey was hard to deny in the immediate aftermath of the storm – pictures and videos showed startling images of businesses destroyed and survivors fleeing their damaged homes. Now, just a little over a year after the hurricane hit, the visuals may not be as striking but the impacts are still felt, in the form of continued homelessness, joblessness, and emotional trauma.
Thanks to a grant from the Rebuild Texas Fund, TNOYS was recently able to kick off Safety Nets for Students and Families, a new project to help identify those youth and their families who remain homeless or displaced after the storm and connect them with resources in the community to help. Several of TNOYS’ member organizations that are located along the Gulf Coast were significantly impacted by Hurricane Harvey when it hit and continue to see the lingering impacts today – their insights, shared below, can help shed light on the realities of what youth and families in the area are still experiencing today as a result of the storm.
Family Service Center of Galveston County
The Galveston community was heavily impacted by Hurricane Harvey, seeing 56 inches of rain and 86 businesses destroyed in the small community of Dickinson alone, according to Family Service Center of Galveston County Executive Director Julie Purser. The organization is located right by where the primary FEMA site was set up in Galveston County, and staff spent a significant amount of time assisting families who were left in crisis by working with the Red Cross and Salvation Army and signing up youth and families for FEMA assistance. While many families have been able to return to their homes, Purser reports that there are still those who remain displaced or are living in homes that have been left less than functional. And she reports seeing a second wave of homelessness emerge as the community continues to struggle with the lingering economic impacts of the storm.
Schools are often a prime location for identifying homelessness and other issues facing youth and their families, and so as a provider of counseling and prevention and early intervention services, Family Service Center has used schools as a way to reach those who are still in need of help after the hurricane. Funding from the Rebuild Texas Fund has allowed them to create four new counseling positions, three of which are located inside schools. Purser reports that schools are continuing to see a lot of trauma and behavior issues among students since the storm, including higher rates of suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression.
Often, assistance after a natural disaster is short-term, but Purser says that in order to create lasting impact, her organization has tried to create a web of support where they become part of the fabric and culture of the campus and an ongoing source of support for students, teachers, and staff. Meanwhile, they are juggling other issues that arise and compound the challenges facing students and families in the area, such as the recent Santa Fe school shooting.
BCFS Health and Human Services
BCFS Health and Human Services had plans in the works to launch a STAR counseling program to serve the Coastal Bend area, including Rockport, Aransas, and Refugio, when Hurricane Harvey hit, but it wasn’t up and running yet. So, it wasn’t until that program launched in December 2017, several months after the hurricane, that the organization really began to get a first-hand glimpse at the hurricane-related problems that youth and families there continued to face.
Marissa Cano, BCFS’ Regional Director for South Texas, says that their STAR clients have experienced everything from joblessness and homelessness to depression and PTSD as a result of the storm. However, in some ways the issues remain hidden, as people in the community rarely volunteer this information readily but must be asked directly how the storm impacted them before opening up about it.
“Our caregivers are reporting that there are changes in behavior, PTSD symptoms, depression and anxiety,” Cano said. “But all of these are things that we’re finding out on a session by session basis because at the time of enrollment, they’re not volunteering the information. People still talk about the hurricane hitting Houston, but that’s not really the case in this area.”
Aside from the lack of communication from those impacted by the storm, Cano also reports difficulties identifying available services in the community to connect people to once their problems are identified. Overall, a general lack of communication from those impacted and lack of connection with those who might be able to help seems to be masking problems that are continuing to linger just below the surface in these communties. As Cano said, it leads her to wonder, “How many other people in the Coastal Bend area were affected and we just don’t know?”
Connections Individual and Family Services
The immediate impact of Hurricane Harvey on Connections Individual and Family Services was severe – staff at the organization’s emergency shelter for youth located just outside of Corpus Christi, in Portland, Texas, had to evacuate a dozen youth and drive them six hours to the organization’s other shelter located in New Braunfels. The evacuation was supposed to last for a few days, but ended up being two weeks long. Staff had to sleep in hotel rooms while working shifts at the shelter and worrying about their own homes back on the coast, many of which had been damaged.
While the immediate impacts of the storm were obvious, Connections staff members echo comments of BCFS, saying the long-term impacts are not very visible today. “You can’t really see it, but it’s there,” said Terina Robinson, a Connections staff member who lives and works on the Gulf Coast. “We have so many little counties surrounding us that were really badly affected but you rarely hear about them in the news.”
These sentiments are consistent with research showing that homelessness among youth can often be a hidden problem. That is compounded by the fact that many of the smaller communities along the Gulf Coast have not received the level of attention that larger communities like Houston did during and after the storm. The stories reinforce the need for the Safety Nets for Students project – to use schools as a connection point for identifying youth and their families who may still be suffering in silence well after Hurricane Harvey has come and gone, and connect them with the help they need.