By Jeremy Weir Alderson

Some catastrophes, like 9/11 and the Challenger disaster, happen in public, but others happen out of sight. Such a catastrophe is slowly unfolding in the shadows of rural Mississippi, where thousands of destitute people are on the verge of losing their post-Katrina temporary housing.

A great deal is unknown because politicians and government agencies don't want to talk about it but this is the situation: before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Waveland, thousands of Mississippians were living in extremely low-cost habitations. Some of these were elderly people, living on Social Security, who had paid off their mortgages; some of these were disabled people whose disability checks just about covered their low rents; and some of these were run-of-the-mill poor people who had been fortunate enough to find low-end affordable housing or who made do with substandard housing.

Unfortunately, Katrina knew no mercy. The paid-for homes of the elderly were washed away, the affordable housing was destroyed and the substandard housing was completely obliterated. The victims were given temporary housing in surviving motel rooms, formaldehyde-filled FEMA trailers or much more substantial MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) cottages. Now, however, through some misguided notion of tough love this temporary housing is being withdrawn.

Some officials say the temporary housing is a blight on neighborhoods, even though it's often superior to what was there before, and it's certainly superior to seeing homeless people begging on the streets. Some officials say that Katrina's storm-wracked survivors have had "long enough" to get their acts together, but such attitudes have less to do with the facts on the ground in Mississippi than they do with the heart of darkness inside humanity.

The simple fact of the matter is, that it's not the victims who didn't get their acts together, it's the people who were supposed to help them. The affordable housing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast has not been rebuilt, hence, people can't be expected to rent properties that don't exist.

Another simple fact is that the Section 8 program which might have provided housing vouchers to those in need is understaffed, overwhelmed, and completely incapable of processing the requests for assistance that are piling up.

No one is quite sure what is going to happen. The temporary housing is supposed to be withdrawn on March 1, but proper eviction notices have not been served, instead “advisories” have been mailed out. Kathleen Johnson, Director of Hancock County Katrina Relief (Hancock County was the hardest-hit county on the entire Gulf Coast) is worried that the relevant authorities won't bother with the niceties of eviction notices but instead will just "lock the doors." She is telling her clients, "to make sure all their critical personal belongings are locked in the trunks of their cars." She warns, "If this goes down as planned, you're going to see a lot of hostility, and you're going to see some people do some unreasonable things."

Trouble is looming ahead, and why not, it's been looming behind since the day the storm hit. "Post-Katrina homelessness has increased," comments Roberta Avila, director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Taskforce. "The economic downturn and the deadline to get people out of transitional housing will likely exacerbate the problem."

If there's one truth in the homelessness field it's that it is a lot easier to keep people in their housing than to get them back into housing after they've lost it. If there's a second truth in the homelessness field, it's that throwing people out on the streets, much less letting them live there, is inhumane. That’s why temporary housing deadline should be extended. People need to be in permanent housing before their temporary housing is taken away. Katrina was a catastrophe, not an example to follow.
Alderson is the director of the Homelessness Marathon radio broadcast which will be originating live from Pass Christian, Mississippi on the night of February 23.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Mississippi Forum. Letters should be sent to the Forum, P.O. Box 3515 Jackson, MS 39207-3515 2/09