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Make me a pallet on the floor: Preparing to take in short-term refugees in tough times

(I really wanted to post Ronnie Gilbert's version of this song, because not only is she a fine old folkie of the sort you are damned grateful exists, but she has one of the finest set of pipes out there. But there's no video anywhere I can find of her singing. I like Mississippi John Hurt's as well, though)

One of the inevitable realities where people get poorer and are subject to more climate-related and infrastructure failure disasters is that people have to take in friends and family who have no other place to go. Hurricane Katrina, for example, for several million people represented an exercise in shared housing - sometimes for a short while, sometimes for a long one. Being psychologically and physically ready to share - whether with neighbors who lose their home to eviction or with family who has to evacuate due to a disaster is important - and it is one of those places where a measure of advance preparation, even if only psychological, is useful to most of us.

As part of our AIP class, we're going to spend today exploring the question of what those who are prepared to stay in place can do for those who can't - this post will concentrate on short term refugees, evacuations that may bring large numbers of people to your house for a few days, weeks, or a month, before they are gradually transitioned to independent life. I have another essay I'll repost shortly on preparing to consolidate housing for the longer term.

Later, I'm going to talk about how communities can and should deal with refugees - those who take shelter in your area, not because they have community ties, but because this is their only choice. But those are for later - right now, I'm going to explore the practicalities of dealing with people who arrive, often on short notice, sometimes after experiencing great trauma or physical harm, and who first and foremost need, as the song goes, "a pallet on the floor."

Only you can know how many people are likely to see you as a potential refuge, and how many you are prepared to accept - my own feeling is that in a short term crisis, many of us can make do with fairly tight conditions for some time. Moreover, while some people tend to take a hard line and say, "You didn't listen when I told you to prepare, so I'm not going to help you" - this is a tough stance to maintain when you have to shut the door on an injured family member who approaches you for help. I suspect most of us, whatever internal resentments we have, will sigh and open up. Me, I've never even pretended I would take a hard line. Moreover, all of us who consider this kind of reaction should remember that there is nothing magic keeping us from becoming refugees as well - all our preparations can easily go up in smoke in one fire, one foreclosure, one long illness, one natural disaster. Compassion is worth a lot here - along with a certain recognition that "there but for the grace..."

Now is the time to do some counting. And when you count, remember that your family (and again, as always, by "family" here, I mean biological and chosen - the people who count in your life and count on you) has family too - that is, you sister's partner may not be able to evacuate without bringing her elderly mother along, and your brother in law may show up on your couch with *his* brother in law, his sister and their two kids. Yes, it may seem strange to count that way, but if the situation is dire enough - if all the motels are fully, if they've been through hell - what are they going to do? Abandon those who matter most to them? In one sense, it may seem like this simplifies the idea of "extended family" - in other ways it may complicate it.

Most short term crises that require mass evacuation are regional - but it isn't inconceivable that larger scale crises could occur. And if your family and friends are comparatively concentrated, you may have large numbers expecting to rely on you, especially if they know that you are the "prepared one." It is also worth remembering that such arrivals don't necessarily require a natural disaster - it is possible that in some families, someone's sense of shame might mean that you didn't learn about a foreclosure, divorce, abusive marriage or eviction until they need a place to stay *right now*.

Ok, first of all, how can we prepare in advance for the population of our homes to double, triple or quadruple? Some of us can't, much. Either we are operating so close to the bone that we don't have any reserves for this hypothetical or we have so little space we can't prepare much. But since the average American has over 600 square feet per person (and yes, I know many of you have much less than average), there probably is room for many of us to make preparations for such a contingency.

In order of priority, I'd say the preparations should go like this:

1. Food - having food in storage is a good idea for many of us anyway. The most likely beneficiaries are ourselves and our immediate family when the budget gets tight, the snowstorm hits, etc... but it can also be a huge help when dealing with a sudden influx of family. It is important to remember that in a crisis, you may be better off than others, but not able to engage in normal activity - the stores may be closed at your place too, the power may be out, or you simply may not be able to afford to buy food for 17 - while your visitors may have left without cash.

Having some simple-to-heat-up foods is a good idea for evacuation bags, but may also be wise for those first hours when refugees are arriving and simply need to be fed. Remember, if a crisis is widespread enough, or the evacuation notice short enough, you may be on the edges of the crisis yourself and without power or other resources. Being able to cook for a crowd without going shopping for a few days or a few weeks ia potentially powerful.

2. Beds - How many people can you sleep now, if you tighten and consolidate sleeping arrangements? It should go without saying that children can be moved out of their beds to sleeping bags on the floor, into the parents' bed or consolidated into sleeping together to allow older adults more comfortable arrangements. If you have the space, acquiring more beds is well worth it even when you are all just getting together for weddings or parties - replacing couches with sleeper couches or futons, adding these to extra rooms, acquiring extra mattresses that can be stored, trundle style under beds, etc... These are often inexpensive or free (people give away futons, mattresses and old sleeper couches all the time on my local Craigslist) for the hauling and can make your experience a lot more pleasant and comfortable for everyone.

Once you are maxed out on beds, the next step might be the proverbial pallet on the floor - a tatami mat, carpet remnent, or camping pad with a sleeping bag or set of blankets on top. Air mattresses are ok, as long as you have the tools and time to fill them manually, since power may be out. Futons can be double layered in many cases - making the bed more comfy while they aren't needed, with the extra pulled out and moved to the living room when needed.

Extra blankets, sheets, towels and other bedding are often cheaply available at garage sales - and thanks to an AIP student's tip - one good way to store them is between the mattress and boxspring of your bed, laid flat.

3. Medical supplies: We'll talk a bit more about medical issues in a second, but at a minimum, refugees are likely to be exhausted, stressed out, and have a wicked headache. At worst, they may have been burned, may have walked for miles, have serious injuries, be starving or dehydrated, hypothermia, heat stroke or have been without needed medication. And again, it is worth remembering that your place may not be free of consequences either - just because you are *safer* doesn't mean the power is on and the hospital isn't packed, on skeleton staff and miles away by foot. While you can't meet every need, being able to evaluate the situation and if not too urgent, provide for basic problems - painkillers, a splint for a sprained ankle, warmth, rehydration, bandages - these are things that are useful to be able to do.

4. Clothing, baby stuff, toys, and other optional extras: This is one of those things that can usually be finessed, so I put this on with the recognition that most people may not need to worry about it much. If you have to, your mother who is 5′ and weighs 93lbs will wear your 5 sizes too big clothes, as will your 11 year old nephew. If worst comes to worst, your 6′3, 300lb cousin may not fit into your 5′9, 145 husband's clothes, but there's probably some big guy in your neighborhood who can spare a sweatshirt and pants.

But if you have the space and energy to deal with it, it isn't a bad idea to do a quick evaluation of who might end up your way, and pick up flexibly sized (ie, stretch waists, cotton t shirts, sweatshirts and sweat pants, cardigan sweaters) clothes that might meet the basic needs of those most likely to come your way. Everyone will be happier if they are warm and wearing clothes that neither expose intimate bits nor leave them freezing or frying, and the clothes they travelled in may be unusable.

My suggestion for this would be bag-sales, often held on the last day of large rummage and garage sales - that is, people want to get rid of stuff, so around me they offer "fill a bag for X tiny sum" (often 50 cents or a dollar) - and the bag is often a garbage bag! (This is also a good place to get interesting fabrics for patchwork quilting, old sweaters for unravelling to knit with, and felted sweaters that can be cut up to make felt mittens, oh, and clothes for you and your family.) I'm not sure I'd devote a lot of energy to this - but it isn't hard to get sizes for people you love and if you keep a list and run into cheap clothing in quality, having an outfit or two (shoes included, if possible) for any likely refugees will make things go smoother.

The same is true of baby things, a few toys, and any special needs items for medically fragile and disabled family members. No, we can't plan for everything, but if there are a lot of pregnant women and young kids in your family, bag sales that offer cloth diapers (diapers are like gold in a disaster and very hard to come by) and small clothes, some toys to distract the kids (these are also useful when they come to visit in happy times) and a few children's books can go a long way to making things nicer. But if you don't have the space or the time, this is when neighbors are to be called upon. A few decks of cards or board games might be smart as a way of organizing and distracting a large crowd who is also listening in terror to bad news or watching their beloved home be washed away on tv.

Ok, let's say, prepared or not, your family is here, now. What do you do?

1. Triage their situation. What do they need right now? Medical care? Food? A place to rest? While some evacuees may arrive in a good situation and mood, most are likely to be extremely traumatized, and as mentioned above, some may be injured, in shock or otherwise in serious trouble. We will assume that you already know minimal first aid, and how to evaluate someone's conditions. If the hospitals are operational and can be reached, and aren't a greater risk than staying home, someone should be deputized to take the injured for treatment. If not, get out that collection of medical books, and make people comfortable, and do what you can for them. Learn to recognize the signs of shock and conditions serious enough to require medical attention even if the hospitals are overwhelmed or the conditions outside are dangerous. Warm the cold and cool the hot gently. Rehydrate them. Pay particular attention to children and anyone unable to articulate their situation.

If someone is in serious medical condition, but cannot get to the hospital, do what you can to stabilize them and begin working with your community to arrange transport as soon as possible. Know which of your neighbors are doctors, nurses, EMTs or other practitioners and call on them if needed.

If someone arrives ill with some obviously contagious (and serious) illness, you will need ot make arrangements to isolate them immediately, and to assign someone to care for the sick person, who will also remain in isolation from the rest of the household. You will need, at a minimum, a room and ideally a bathroom (although a bucket toilet and plenty of water will do), as well as lots of bedding, gloves and masks if you have them, bleach to disinfect, and a place for the caregiver to sleep. If there is a group and the illness is highly contagious, you may need to quarantine a whole group - so thinking about how to allocate space (people who are not sick but have been exposed should be kept apart from those who are actively ill, to reduce the dangers).

2. Start out by being a refuge, a place to recover. The first hours or even day is no time to begin laying down anything more than the minimal necessary rules - provide as much quiet as you can, food, a chance to talk about the experience or the option not to, as comfortable an environment as possible, support and kindness. Feed everyone something comforting if possible - soup, or something else familiar and not to difficult to digest. If possible, you might give up your room at least for the first 24 hours to allow adults who are exhausted a chance to sleep. Continue to keep an eye on children, who may express their feelings about the experience in unexpected ways. This period may need to last longer for those who have been seriously injured, or for those who are quite elderly, medically fragile or disabled.

3. If the situation goes on for more than a day or two, you are going to have to begin the work of actually living together. Especially if there are a lot of people in close proximity, this is likely to be annoying at times - everyone is likely to need time and space when they are not around each other. Visitors may seem ungrateful or demanding, while you may be impatient and frustrated that your life is so disrupted.

The first and perhaps most important thing you can do is to take some deep breaths and recognize that for now, you are stuck with each other, and that fighting and expressing every feeling you have will not help you. Courtesy is what is wanted here, and in most families, a polite measure of shutting up. There are some extended families that can lovingly and respectfully discuss their disagreements even at the worst of times, when everyone is under enormous psychological stress - they do not constitute anything even remotely like a statistical majority, however. I'm going to suggest that in the very short term the appropriate way of handling most of our emotions is "suck it up" - I realize that this flies in the face of the conventional psychological wisdom that self-expression is good for you, but in this case, we are attempting to achieve the greatest possible good for the maximum number of people.

This is also *NOT* the time to discuss and try and resolve old problems. Table them for now, and to the extent it is possible, decline to revisit them even with determined family members. Any discussion that begins "You always..." is probably a bad one to have now.

So how do you live together when this goes on for more than a day or two? This is obviously a longer subject than can be covered fully in one post but some strategies.

1. Post the rules you really care about - write 'em out, post them publically, and enforce them equitably - yes, I know you understand that your kids are acting out because they are under stress, while you SIL's kid is a little monster all the time. Tough patooties - everyone has the same rules, barring inability to understand or inability to physically obey them.

But resist the attempt to be a complete control freak, or make sure that your life runs exactly the way it always has. If this is something you suffer from as a matter of personality, do your best to suspend it. Yes, it is appropriate to make rules about lengths of showers and washing out your breakfast dishes. No, your house isn't going to be as tidy, your kids aren't going to be as well behaved and things are going to be abnormal for a while - too many restrictions lead to mutiny and failures and more crisis. Be very clear about what's you and what's necessary to actually deal with.

2. Give everyone as much space and privacy as humanly possible. Everyone is likely to be feeling cramped and sick of one another - so try and give everyone a break when possible. Someone has to go grocery shopping? Be gracious - take your kids and theirs and leave the other couple alone for a short while. Plan on being outside as much as humanly possible, adjusted for safety and climate issues.

Remember, your spouse or kids or housemate may be having a lot of trouble too - give them some space as well. Send the kids off to playdate, let the boyfriend run the errands alone.

3. Bring in more people - really. You and your family in a tiny lifeboat alone may be awfully tough - so invite the neighbors over. No, this isn't a "see how it could be worse strategy!" Yes, they take up space too, but they'll talk to your Mom for a while so you can do the dishes, and maybe they have a suggestion for a local apartment or a senior center event that people might want to attend. Giving your family other people than you to talk to is good.

This goes doubly and triply for children. If you aren't used to kids, you may think that the idea of inviting three neighbor siblings over to play with the three kids you've got invading your house may sound like hell on earth. But six kids may be easier than three bored kids, who want you to entertain them and have nothing to do but express their trauma with their parents and relatives. Bring over the neighbor kids and they may suddenly disappear out into the yard or the basement to entertain themselves and give you some necessary breathing space.

4. Let people know what you like about this, and them. There may not be much, but there are good things about an extended in-house camping trip with your family. New arrivals are likely to be feeling vulnerable, like they are a burden. They may be tiptoeing around you, or in fear that you'll throw them out and they will have nowhere to go. Letting people know that even though this is annoying, you love them and appreciate that they do the dishes and keep the kids quiet in the morning so that you can sleep in, that you like having them around and wish the visit could be under better circumstances is good - especially, (but not exclusively) if it is true.

In many families, giving people useful work and a way to contribute will go a long way to relieving the sense of burden. Let them make dinner, let them help you fix the roof, let them do something for you, if they can. Part of generosity is not making people feel overly beholden - do what you can to allow people to feel part of your family, routine and as though they are participants.

5. Expect trauma and fear to manifest themselves. People who have lost their homes, or don't know whether they have one, people who may be missing family members, people who have been through hell and back are messed up. You would be too. They are likely to be angry sometimes, weepy, afraid, oversensitive. They may do stupid things. The kids may seem badly behaved, act like much younger children, be hostile or fearful.

As much as you can, chalk up the difficulties to this, even if you have your doubts. Give them the same benefit of the doubt you'd want in the same situations. Make clear that some responses are utterly unacceptable - there will be no violence, no alcohol and drugs. For those who seem to be moving into pathological responses to trauma, get them help as fast as you can.

Ok, how do you bring this situation to a logical conclusion?

If the problem disappears on its own - the rain comes and reduces the wildfire risk, the floodwaters receed and the house is still ok, the disaster was largely averted, it may be as simple as helping them pack, giving hugs goodbye and waving as they drive back to their normal lives. But what if it isn't like that? What if the house was burned, the area contaminated and uninhabitable in the long term, what if your family members refuse to ever go back, for fear that it might happen again?

Then you need to help them get established somewhere else. Some people may be able to take the initiative on this themselves, or the living conditions may be all the incentive they need, but the elderly, the disabled, very young adults, those who are very traumatized or people who simply aren't go-getters may need help settling in. You may need to devote some time and energy to helping them find an apartment, apply for needed services, look for a job. If yours is the only car, phone and computer, you may need to share more than you'd like. Remember, it is for a good cause.

If this is a crisis that is sympomatic of our larger one, now is probably a good time to encourage your family members to think about that for the long term - to suggest that instead of rebuilding somewhere wildfire prone, they consider a safer area, to suggest that if the relationship is good, maybe they stay near you (or if it is bad that they relocate to some distant city with opportunities ;-). Now is a good time to think about how to avoid this happening again.

You may, at some point, have to be blunt, and after a reasonable grace period, it is appropriate to tell people "look, we need to get you settled in a place and the kids enrolled in school, so I expect you to start looking for next month, if that's possible, and I'll expect you to take that part time job you were offered while the kids are in school, and start paying rent." In some small number of cases, you may need eventually to evict people who have moved from "refugee" to "freeloader." If this is the case, all adult permanent relatives should agree, and send a consistent message "we were glad to have you while we could, but we simply can't anymore." Do try not to punish children for the sins of parents, however.

Will all this advice make the sudden descent of 19 of your closest friends and relatives seem like unmitigated bliss? Probably not. But it may make the thought manageable, and might help us shift from thinking about how overwhelming it might be to how grateful you are that you can help, that your loved ones are safe, and that they probably will be leaving soon ;-) .

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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