FEMA extends housing deadline

Published 12:51 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mississippi residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and who are still residing in a federally funded housing unit, have been granted a reprieve by the federal government, giving them two more months to find suitable housing.

“The temporary housing program has been extended to May 1st,” said Phil Strouse, an intergovernmental affairs liaison for Federal Emergency Management Agency. Strouse appeared in front of the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors last week and again this week, asking the supervisors to set a county deadline as well.

Strouse told the supervisors that in order for the federal deadline to have any teeth, the county has to get involved and set a deadline for the residents to have living quarters that meet county code requirements. “For example, Petal set June 2009 as a deadline date,” said Strouse. “Once that date hits, (the residents still in FEMA housing) can be cited for being out of code.”

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Strouse said that so far, only two municipalities in Mississippi have set such deadlines — Petal and Bay St. Louis.

The reason the county needs to get on board with FEMA, said Strouse, is because the agency does not have the power to just go in and remove the trailers if the residents do not ask them to. “The person has to call and deactivate the trailer because FEMA can not just pull someone out,” he said.

The issue of the 370-plus Pearl River county families still dependent on FEMA housing was first raised last month when members of Rebuilding Pearl River County Together met with the board of supervisors and warned its members that the county was facing a serious homeless situation if they did not make provisions for the families still in temporary housing.

“We have 340 open cases,” said Pam Cross, director of the Life Resource Center in Picayune. Cross is a volunteer with Rebuilding Pearl River County Together. “About 10 percent of them will be closed, but 306 will still need help.” Cross said since February 2006, the organization has helped rebuild or repair 133 homes destroyed in the hurricane.

Jameye Martin of Manna Ministries, also a volunteer, had told board members at that meeting, that if FEMA did not change the March 1 deadline, “there is going to be a huge homeless population in Pearl River County.”

Strouse said FEMA shows there are still 375 temporary housing units in the county. Of those, 238 are occupied property owners, 137 renters, and “all but 21 are on private lots.” The remaining 21 are located on commercial properties.

Even though the residents are being allowed to continue using the trailers for two more months, Strouse said there would be a couple of changes made in an effort to move the residents closer to self-sufficiency. One of those, he said, was the plan to start charging $100 a month to get them back to self-sufficiency, with increasing increments each month. He told board members, that with the election of a new president and administration in the nation’s capital, many of those types of decisions were put on hold because the new administration wanted time to look over where the agency was and what was happening.

He said selling the travel trailers to the residents was not an option because of formaldehyde issues, but that those people residing in a mobile home supplied by FEMA, might be able to purchase those units. “The travel trailers go back to GSA due to formaldehyde concerns and sold for scrap,” said Strouse. “No travel trailers are being sold to live in. The mobile homes have to be tested and then they can purchase them.”

Board president and District 1 supervisor Anthony Hales said he understood how difficult it has been for local residents to recover from the devastation created by Katrina. However, “At this point in time there are two types of people you’re going to be dealing with,” said Hales. “Those that can’t do no better and those that won’t.”

Noting that he felt that some people use the system and want something for nothing, Hales said, “You have some guy going to work every day and they haven’t even put an application in for housing. And then there are those who don’t have the means to go anywhere.”

Nevertheless, Hales said he was reluctant to pass any resolution that set a deadline. “I’m not going to be the one to tell someone they have to move,” said Hales, adding that some of the people did not have the means for any type of housing in the county, noting that there was limited affordable housing available. “I am not comfortable with setting a date,” he said.

Hales said he knew there was federal money “out there” for such things as affordable housing projects, “If there is help for the people in Pearl River county, then I want to make sure the people get the help. I want to see what resources are available,” he said

Strouse attempted, again, to point out to the supervisors that the matter of affordable housing was not the key issue right now, telling them that it was a pre-Katrina problem and that if they failed to enact a deadline so that FEMA could start making progress to end the Katrina assistance, the residents in the temporary units would still be faced with an eviction eventually. “Katrina did not make affordable housing a problem,” said Strouse, adding later, “If you don’t do this now, we’ll be doing it in August.”

Hales asked Strouse what was FEMA doing to separate those who can’t afford housing from those who are just taking advantage of the system. “I want to know what steps FEMA is taking to make sure people who can afford it are making steps,” said Hales. “Are you investigating and identifying those who are just riding the system?”

Noting the agency was trying to separate the two, he said it was not a fool-proof system, adding that just because someone says they are doing the best they can, doesn’t mean they really are. “They each have a case manager and they can say they are doing this or that and when the case manager comes back, they could have yet another excuse,” said Strouse.

Although last week the supervisors agreed that a deadline needed to be set, this week their view had softened. Last week Hales said they should consider enacting a deadline, but this week he said, “We can’t make someone live where they don’t want to live.“

Patrick Lee, supervisor for District 4, concurred with Hales and Strouse last week that the board needed to set some sort of regulation in place. “That is what we’re going to have to do soon,” said Lee. “We will have to deal with the deadbeats and those that can’t do anything else.” This week he said the board needed to identify what they could do for the residents still residing in FEMA units, and separate those who can’t with those who won’t.

Hudson Holliday, supervisor for District 3, said last week the board needed to set a deadline, noting that unless everyone starts to get tough, some of the residents remaining in the free housing were not going to go anywhere. “I think they’re going to stay there until someone puts them out,” said Holliday. “They’re not going to get out on their own.”

This week, he questioned Strouse about the federal government doing more. “What is the county’s responsibility in all of this?,” said Holliday. “Is Pearl River County in the housing furnishing business?

“The question I want to ask is why isn’t FEMA charging them rent?” Holliday added that if the government demanded payment to live in the units, those residents would decide to do something besides live for free.

District 5 supervisor Sandy Kane Smith reiterated his opinion last week that board members needed to meet with Rebuilding Pearl River County Together volunteers, find out what is what, and make a decision at a future meeting. He added this week that they needed to identify those who really needed help and those that were taking advantage of the system. “Some really need help and others don’t want to do better,” said Smith.

The next Board of Supervisor’s meeting is at 9 a.m. Monday, March 9, in the Board Room in the courthouse on Julia Street.