Thursday, September 29, 2005

Couple Who Survived Rita Finds Shelter in Mass.

(Link) Married in Massachusetts, Yolanda and Jan Meehan-Hoo moved to Louisiana just in time to lose everything to Hurricane Rita. Unlike straight married couples, FEMA is denying aid because the agency "doesn't recognize gay and lesbian couples as a household."

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Ethan Jacobs
Bay Windows

Marriage has allowed Bay State same-sex couples unprecedented access to state benefits, but now one couple believes their marriage may be an obstacle to receiving basic relief services after Hurricane Katrina.

The couple, Yolanda and Jan Meehan-Hoo, were legally married last February when they lived in North Attleboro, but last June they made an ill-fated move with their three children to Slidell, La., right in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Now they're back in Massachusetts, staying with a family in Attleboro, and they are working with one of their hosts, Forrest King, a 53-year-old retiree, to secure relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), medical services through MassHealth, the state's Medicaid program and transitional assistance to establish themselves in Massachusetts. King, who has taken the lead in navigating the state and federal bureaucracy to access these services for the couple, claims FEMA halted the couple's application after he demanded that they be recognized as a same-sex couple.

"FEMA will not accept gay and lesbian couples as a household. [The agency says] do it [as two] separate [applicants], even if they're living together," said King.

Bay Windows was unable to find conclusive evidence that the couple has been targeted for discrimination by FEMA or by state agencies, but at the very least their case shows that the refusal of the federal government to recognize marriages in Massachusetts may create problems for married couples in a crisis.

Ellis said the application for FEMA assistance "wouldn't have anything like marital status. It would be more [focused on questions like] number of people in the household." She said unmarried roommates could apply for assistance just as easily as a married couple.

Yet King provided Bay Windows with a copy of the Meehan-Hoos's application for assistance from FEMA, and it does indeed ask for the relationships of the people in the household applying for aid. Yolanda Meehan-Hoo said when she filled out the application, she originally listed Jan as her spouse; the fact that the federal government does not recognize the marriages of same-sex couples (thanks to the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act) was the last thing on her mind.

"When I filled out the FEMA application, I'm just answering the questions as they ask me, and I didn't even think on the federal level we're not married," said Yolanda.

After discussions between King and FEMA, the couple agreed to change the application to list Jan as "immediate family" rather than as a spouse, but King says he has pressed the agency to acknowledge the Meehan-Hoos as married spouses on their application, to no avail. The couple received a $2000 check from FEMA earmarked for the family, but King said his dispute with agency over their marital status has prevented their application for further relief from being processed. Again, as a result of confidentiality, FEMA could not confirm or deny this.

Whether or not FEMA has frozen their application, one thing is for certain: after surviving the worst national disaster to hit the United States the last thing the Meehan-Hoos want is to waste time haggling with federal officials about whether or not they are a family.

The couple wound up in Attleboro completely by chance. The morning of Aug. 28, the day before the storm tore through Louisiana, the couple woke their three children, ages 5, 7, and 9, and started packing. Yolanda was convinced they would be back home within the week, so everyone packed light. The thought that they might not be able to return did not seem a possibility.

"My wife's a packer, she would bring the whole kitchen sink, and I said no," said Yolanda. "I said we're going to be back, grab three outfits for the kids."

After loading up the car the family sped to a nursing home where Gertrude Hoo, Yolanda's 72-year-old mother, had been living. Gertrude has Alzheimer's and diabetes, and she was completely dependent on her daughter to get her to safety.

With everyone packed into the car, they left at 10:30 a.m. and fought their way through 10 m.p.h. bumper-to-bumper traffic, arriving at the border two hours later. By that evening they had reached Jacksonville, Fla., when their brakes finally gave out. For the rest of the ride to Yolanda's father's house in Port St. John, a four-hour trip, they relied on the emergency brake.

After getting their bearings in Florida, the couple decided to move back to Massachusetts. Jan flew up to Boston to look for assistance while Yolanda hunted for resources on the Web. Yolanda found a Web site called, where survivors of Katrina could connect with people willing to house them. There she found contact information for Forrest King and his wife, Marie Hancock-King, and she made plans for Jan to meet with them. Jan at first was wary about why King, a 53-year-old self-described dyed-in-the-wool conservative, would want to open his home to a lesbian couple and their family. But after meeting King, his wife, and his two step-children, she felt completely at ease.

"When I came in the home I felt like we could be here. It's hard to blend two families but whenever we asked about something they said, it's your home, too," said Jan.

Yolanda and the rest of the family flew up to Attleboro and moved into a section of the house with its own kitchen and bathroom (Gertrude was moved to a nearby nursing home, thanks in no small part to advocacy by King on Gertrude's behalf). Other residents of the town soon heard about the story of the couple who had escaped from Katrina, and soon the Meehan-Hoos received gift certificates for clothes from local residents and gifts from local businesses. The story of a conservative Republican opening his home to a lesbian couple attracted enough attention that Time magazine profiled the two families in its Sept. 18 issue. The article was titled "Guess Who's Coming...," and in keeping with the title the article suggested that the experience of living together had opened King's mind about LGBT issues. Yet proving that tolerance is not a partisan issue, King said he himself has never opposed same-sex couples' right to marry, regardless of his party's stance, and he said living with the Meehan-Hoos was less an education than a confirmation of what he already suspected.

"It has not even been a learning experience... I watched Jan and Yolanda having a spat, and they're just as miserable as the rest of us," he joked.

As the Meehan-Hoos worked to establish some measure of normalcy, enrolling their children in the local school system and making sure Gertrude is being taken care of, King has taken it upon himself to advocate on their behalf with FEMA, as well as with its state equivalent, MEMA, and the MassHealth program. He said every time he let someone in the bureaucracy know he was calling on behalf of a same-sex couple he suddenly met resistance. He asked Governor Mitt Romney's office to help him access support from FEMA and MEMA, and claims a man named Dan in constituent services told him that the Meehan-Hoos's marriage was not even valid under state law. The man cited a 1913 law that the state has used to deny marriage licenses to out-of-state couples and said that the couple had invalidated their marriage by moving to Louisiana. The governor's office did not return a call requesting comment, but Michelle Granda, an attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) said the 1913 law does not apply to couples who marry while residing in Massachusetts, and it does not invalidate the marriages of Bay Staters who move out of state.

"Whoever is saying these things challenging the marriage of a Massachusetts couple claiming they're not valid because they moved from the state couldn't be more wrong," said Granda.

King has taken such an active role in advocating for the couple that he said he declined to tell them about some of the difficulties he has faced in getting them access to relief services, and he also declined to discuss some of those difficulties on the record with Bay Windows.

"I don't think people in dire straits need to have more heaped on them. I've told Jan and Yolanda there are things I'm dealing with that they shouldn't have to deal with," said King.

Many people might be wary of handing over such an important responsibility for their affairs to someone who they have known for less then a month. Yet the Meehan-Hoos seem completely at ease with King, and they say they're just thankful for the support.

"He has really gone to bat for us and helped us out," said Jan.

For now, Jan and Yolanda are figuring out what their next step will be. The couple both worked in the health care industry, but Yolanda had been considering starting her own business, in an unspecified field, before the hurricane hit. She is researching whether that would be a feasible option up here, and Jan may possibly join her in the venture. In the meantime, Jan and Yolanda, Forrest and Marie, and their children are learning to live as one family, an unexpected blessing in the wake of a disaster.