A Special Thanksgiving For Mississippi's Gulf Coast (with video)

Gulfport, MS - Residents along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, a region still struggling to recover from the worst hurricane disaster in American history and more recently, the worst American oil spill, have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday.  A little more than a week ago, H.U.D. Secretary Shaun Donovan joined Governor Haley Barbour and Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Reilly Morse in the coastal city of Gulfport to announce that $132 million would be made available for lower-income, disabled and elderly Katrina victims still suffering with unmet housing needs five years after the storm.

An agreement on how Community Development Block Grant funds would be used has finally been settled after years of negotiations between community groups and the state government.  The dispute originated after the state plan to divert $600 million for a port expansion project from grants earmarked for housing was approved by then U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, fair housing advocacy groups and the state department had already identified 4,400 families that would likely benefit from the extra funds when the declaration was made last week - families that had previously been denied state assistance.  In fact, $93 million was assigned specifically for folks that were “already in the system” while only $40 million was set-aside for new applicants.

Gov. Barbour, however, maintained during the press briefing that it was unlikely that this last round of Katrina relief funds would benefit more than 1% of the people.  He also promised to “meet any need above that out of the money that was reallocated to the port project” but said that he thought that need would be “unlikely.”

Martha Bergmark, President of The Mississippi Center for Justice disagreed with Gov. Barbour’s estimation. “A much more significant number of people than the governor was suggesting are going to be helped by this.”

It seems that Bergmark’s prediction may be right.

As of this week, there have been 3,500 applicants that have been processed through the in-take system; of that, 3,000 applicants are new to the system. 

“The applicants still need to be evaluated for eligibility regarding income and other stipulations, but this is an indication that there was a genuine need,” says Morse.

Morse has been working pro bono on this case for five years and was teary eyed as H.U.D. Secretary Donovan talked about how he visited the communities in need and pressed to make these additional funds available.

“We should look at this as a victory for many reasons.  First, the number of processed applicants shows the intake system is working.  This is also an example of the government listening to a need lifted up by the people and it shows that working with the government through social justice advocacy organizations can make meaningful change. It’s a real victory for community organizing,” Morse said.

A victory that senior citizen Dorothy McClendon, one of the individual plaintiffs of the lawsuit, is happy to witness.  “I'm very happy that finally the government has stepped up to the plate to help the people that have been struggling for five years.  There's so many people now that'll be able to get the help that they deserved a long five years ago, but I'm so glad that now, it's going to happen.”

McClendon is a resident of the Soria City community in Gulfport and received housing assistance from the state but it was only enough to cover repairs to the outside of her home.  "After labor charges, there wasn't much left for actual repairs.  I had debris damage repaired, replaced windows, the house shifted and the handicap ramp had to be rebuilt.  Rotted boards were replaced and a roof drainage system was installed.” 

A local church was able to help with some of the costs but after repairing one room, she discovered it would take much more than she could afford to fix the inside of her house.

"I found a lot of mildew and mold.  There are two rooms in my house that still have not been taken care of.  My concern is that all these years I've been breathing that and now finally, something could be done because it's affected my health tremendously.  I thank god for the people that have really just continued on fighting and speaking for us.  I'm just thankful," McClendon said. 

“They put a person up at the front, but there were scores of organizations, hundreds of people behind those organizations,” Morse said in reference to himself.

Those groups include the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, Mississippi Conference NAACP, the Steps Coalition and included representation from the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Mintz-Levin Law Firm.  It was this impressive coalition of advocacy groups that were responsible for bringing the plight of many seniors and families in southern Mississippi still displaced or living in damaged homes to the attention of H.U.D. Secretary Donovan. 

Donovan was shown first-hand by these groups that most of the effected families lived below the poverty line and could not afford homeowner’s insurance, which excluded them from getting state assistance, or were denied monetary assistance from insurance companies that claimed the damages were caused by wind and therefore not covered by their policies.  There were also many folks, like McClendon, that qualified and received assistance, but just wasn’t enough to cover all the repairs.

“It's very exciting,” Executive Director of STEPS Coalition Roberta Avila says.  “It also couldn’t have come at a better time because the state will be auctioning off cottages in December and these funds can be used to buy them.”

The cottages were Mississippi’s answer to temporary housing after F.E.M.A. trailers were found to be poisoning occupants with formaldehyde.  The modular structures on wheels were not originally meant to be permanent structures but after elevation and infrastructure was set up with city utility services, they are a good answer for citizens that don’t have permanent homes Avila explained.

More of a concern for Avila was the fast approaching January 31 deadline.  “We only have 60 days. Given the fact that people have been waiting for five years, my preference would have been that that time period was extended.” 

Avila also noted that both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays would fall during the application period.  “We tried to get the deadline extended, but they just wouldn’t budge.”

But that wasn’t enough to bring spirits down at the press conference.

"This is a huge step in terms of reaching out to the people who are at or below area median income who did not have the benefit of other programs.  Since Hurricane Katrina, a number of local grassroots organizations have developed a fare amount of efficiency at holding clinics, education and outreach events, and using whatever means necessary to get people on board with any number of programs,” John Joplin of Mississippi Center for Justice Gulf Coast office in Biloxi explains.

Donovan even acknowledged how impressed he was with the effectiveness of the grassroots organization in the area during the briefing in Gulfport.

“Getting the information out will be the hardest part,” says McClendon.

The groups seem to be living up to expectations considering the number of people that have gone through the intake process thus far.  That’s a tremendous feat considering the application process must be done in-person at one of 10 locations in the nine counties that are eligible - there are two locations in Harrison County.  For a list of In-Take Application locations click here.

Applicants anywhere in the state of Mississippi may also call 211 to find out where an intake center is in your area.

There are 68 days left for residents of Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, Pearl River, George, Lamar, Stone, Forrest and Jones counties to apply for the new Neighborhood Home Program which will help residents how are below 80% of the state’s average median income to repair homes to habitable conditions.  There is also the possibility of rental assistance for non-home owners.  Each family is eligible for up to $75,000.

The offices are closed in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday but will be open starting at 8 a.m. Monday.

For complete details visit http://www.msdisasterrecovery.com/index.php?lang=en-US

Liana Lopez is the producer and co-host of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having
Their Say on 90.1 FM and www.KPFT.org (Pacifica – Houston Radio.)  She is a freelance writer and photographer for the Houston Press (Village Voice Media) and many other publications. She is also the recipient of a Houston Arts Alliance Emerging Artist grant for a multimedia/photography project based on her travels through post-revolutionary Nicaragua.