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THE TIMES POLL : Damage, Not Anxiety, Kept Most in Shelters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Severe damage to their homes--not mere nervousness about their safety--prevented the vast majority of earthquake victims stuck in emergency shelters and tent cities from returning to their residences, The Times Poll has found.

More than 70% of the predominantly poor and Latino population housed in a network of emergency housing sites countywide fled homes that had been condemned, or suffered serious damage, the poll found. Only about one in five said their primary reason for not returning home was that they felt unsafe and nervous there, or feared aftershocks.

The findings, drawn from a major Times survey conducted Thursday through Saturday in more than 30 shelters and tent cities across the county, run counter to a notion that has become engrained in Southern California earthquake folklore in recent years: that Latinos are more reluctant to return to residences after a major temblor. This fear is often attributed to experiences with major quakes in Latin American countries, where less stringent building codes routinely make structures more vulnerable to powerful quakes.

The survey found that Latinos remaining at shelters were generally no more likely than shelter residents overall to cite nervousness about the safety of their homes as their primary reason for staying in a shelter.

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“What the poll found is people are in these shelters because they have to be there,” said Times Poll director John Brennan, who supervised the survey.

While news media images of the poorer minorities stranded in tent cities and school gymnasiums have come to symbolize the quake’s human toll, Brennan noted that an apparently far larger group--what he terms the “invisible quake victims"--found refuge with relatives and friends across Los Angeles County.

A separate countywide telephone poll by The Times last week found that about 6% of adults--which could equate to hundreds of thousands of residents--have someone staying with them who was displaced by the Northridge quake.

The poll of shelter residents is based on 581 interviews conducted in English and Spanish at emergency housing sites from the Santa Clarita Valley to Santa Monica. Although it is not possible to calculate a precise margin of error for the survey, the poll provides the most comprehensive portrait to date of the 6,000 quake victims who remained in shelters while the survey was conducted.

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At the peak, before The Times conducted its survey, the shelters and tent camps housed more than 15,000 people. Their reasons for leaving sooner--whether they took up residence with friends and family, went back into their own homes or found new quarters, or were so unnerved that they left the region altogether--cannot be measured.

The survey found that the shelter residents were predominantly minorities, younger people, renters, and skilled and semiskilled workers with very low incomes. Fifty-eight percent were Latino, 23% white, 14% black and 2% Asian American. Forty-six percent of those surveyed--including three-fourths of Latinos--are not U.S. citizens. The poll found that few shelter residents are new arrivals and that the majority have lived in Southern California six years or longer.

A majority of those in shelters said they had jobs when the quake struck, and about one-third continued working after moving into emergency housing. More than half of the workers were either unable to go to work or lost their jobs.

Generally, those staying at shelters appear to have been hit the hardest by both physical damage to their homes and psychological aftereffects of the 6.6 temblor, the poll found.

Seventy-two percent said their homes suffered shattered windows, cracked or broken walls or worse, the poll found. By contrast, a Times poll last week found that just 10% of respondents countywide--and more than one in three within five miles of the epicenter--suffered similar damage.

Likewise, among shelter residents 39% said they suffered “severe” psychological aftereffects, such as sleeplessness, an unusual fear and edginess. The countywide poll last week found 15% of adult respondents reported such aftereffects, including 31% who suffered major damage to their homes.

On the positive side, government relief programs appear to be reaching the needy quake victims at the shelters.

Fully 60% of adults in the shelters said they have received emergency housing vouchers, or have applied and are waiting for them to arrive. Nearly half say there is a good chance they will relocate to housing of their own within a few weeks.

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The findings seemed to clash with the fears of some housing experts and urban planners, who believe that many of the poor forced from their homes by the quake will end up permanently homeless. However, a sizable minority, 37%, said their chances of obtaining their own housing soon were not good.

Even among those who remain stuck in shelters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead entity in distributing aid and emergency housing grants, receives high marks. Nearly 7 in 10 tent city and shelter residents say they approve of the way FEMA has handled the disaster response, a more favorable rating than the agency received in last week’s countywide Times poll.

One of the clearest contrasts to surface in the survey involved ethnicity, families and the shelters.

Among whites, 75% of those staying at the sites had no children with them, and 59% were alone. Among Latinos, 80% had their children with them, and just 11% were alone.

THE TIMES POLL: Life in the Shelters

A Times poll of 581 earthquake shelter residents finds that damaged homes--more than just jittery nerves--have forced them into the encampments. Almost half say they have a good chance to get housing in the next few weeks. Shelter residents are predominantly young, poor and Latino; most have lived in Southern California for more than two years.

Why are you staying at the shelter? * Home was condemned: 37% Home seriously damaged: 35% Feel home is unsafe: 10% Afraid of aftershocks: 8% Can’t afford to find apartment: 2% ***

What is the most pressing problem or difficulty you have as a result of the earthquake? (2 responses allowed) * Dwelling unlivable: 32% Finding a temporary place to live: 32% Psychological aftereffects: 16% Lost a lot of personal belongings: 14% Don’t have enough food/clothing: 11% ***

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What are the chances you will be able to get into housing of your own in the next few weeks? Very good: 23% Fairly good: 24% Not so good: 21% No chance: 16% Don’t know: 16% ***

WHO IS STAYING AT THE SHELTERS? Male: 55% Female: 45% Alone: 29% With family: 66% Have children at shelter: 59% Own home: 5% Rent: 92% ***

Income: Less than $10,000: 53% $10,000-$19,999: 25% $20,000 or more: 14% ***

Age: 18-29: 33% 30-44: 44% 45-64: 15% 65 and older: 4% ***

Citizenship: U.S. citizen: 54% Not a citizen: 46% ***

How long have you lived in Southern California? Less than 6 months: 3% 6 months-2 years: 7% 2-10 years: 39% More than 10 years: 33% Native: 16% ***

Job status: Working: 53% Homemaker: 14% Student: 5% Unemployed: 9% Retired: 4% ***

Ethnic background: White: 23% Black: 14% Latino: 58% Asian: 2% Other: 3% Some groups may not equal 100% because of multiple responses, other answers and “don’t knows” that are not displayed.

* Top five answers reported

HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED

The Times Poll interviewed 581 adult residents of 31 earthquake shelters and tent cities throughout Los Angeles County, from Thursday through Saturday. Interviewing was conducted face to face, in English and Spanish, using techniques to ensure that a random selection of people were approached. Results were weighted slightly to account for the estimated number of adult residents at each shelter site.


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