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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 September 2005, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Katrina challenge for LA mission
By Matthew Wells
Los Angeles

New Orleans union worker Benny Baxter
Baxter says the centre is using the presence of evacuees to raise its profile
With up to a million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, cities across America have been offering shelter, including the city of Los Angeles.

The largest group of several hundred evacuees have been housed at a Christian outreach ministry based inside a former hospital complex, called the Dream Center.

"When they come in, you can see the Hollywood sign," said Jake Rogers, one of the young staff members who has been working flat-out to help the evacuees.

"For about 90% of people I talk to, nobody's ever been to California before," he added.

It may be close to America's dream factory, but the 10-year-old church mission is far removed from the manicured lawns of nearby Beverly Hills.

It provides community services, refuge and hopefully a fresh start to local down-and-outs, with no strings attached - although a commitment to born-again Christianity is obviously encouraged.

With plenty of space to offer, and lying next door to one of the wealthiest communities in the country, the Dream Center's generosity has earned it a lot of media attention, and large donations - both in terms of useful items and cash.

Concern

Less than a fortnight after opening their doors, there was no room left to store donated goods, but dozens of Los Angeles residents are still volunteering their time and services every day.

Jamal Johnson (left) and Ricky Valentine
We're not used to feeling like we've got to be in prison. We're evacuees, not prisoners
Ricky Valentine
Visiting the centre for a few hours last week, it was clear that some evacuees were deeply concerned by what the present and future has in store for them.

"We haven't got any gangs in [New Orleans]," said 23-year-old Jamal Johnson, comparing the street culture of his still-flooded home town, with the gang-dominated life of young men in LA's black and Hispanic neighbourhoods.

"We're not used to that gang stuff. You can't wear red and blue [in LA]. Back home we wear whatever we want when we wake up," he added.

His friend Ricky Valentine said he was desperate to leave the Dream Center: "We can't get none of the cash benefits because we're staying here. We need them so we can try to move on and get back into society.

"We're not used to feeling like we've got to be in prison. We're evacuees, not prisoners," he added angrily.

'Criminals'

Although the sense of gratitude towards donors and many hard-working staffers at the centre was still apparent, there was also resentment and frustration.

Two women I interviewed in front of a Dream Center staffer, approached me later when I was on my own, to say they felt like criminals who had to beg for basic necessities.

We're doing everything we can to help these people, to get them houses, get them jobs
Jake Rogers, volunteer
They said they had held a crisis meeting with staff to ask for cash and items they had seen being delivered, to be passed onto them by the church authorities.

Benny Baxter, 36, an electricians' union worker from the New Orleans area, claimed that the centre was using the evacuees' presence to attract donations and publicity for its own projects.

"People have donated, to go to us...They didn't donate it to the Dream Center so that the Dream Center can take California's drug addicts and rehabilitate them," he said.

Staffer Jake Rogers, wearily rebuffed that kind of criticism, saying it came from only a tiny percentage of the evacuees:

"Some people still have the wrong perception of everything. We're doing everything we can to help these people, to get them houses, get them jobs," he said.

Last Friday, the relief centre was visited by several homelessness advocates following evacuees' complaints, and they announced that there were no grounds for a formal investigation into the Dream Center's practices.

In at least one instance, opening up the centre's doors to the media clearly backfired.

National television host, Dr Phil McGraw - whose faith-based family counselling show has a wide following - aired a segment last week, filmed at the Dream Center.

In it, a handful of lucky families were donated new homes and $10,000 or more, to start new lives nearby.

One Dream Center staffer admitted that the programme had caused widespread resentment among some of those left behind.


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