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Delta Housing

NCR Staff
Walls and Tunica, Miss.

Building modern, affordable housing for the working poor, then selling it below cost doesn’t make sense. That’s why Catholics do it here.

Sr. of St. Joseph Betty Adams is looking for an additional $1.2 million to start construction on the next five single-family homes in Hernando, Miss. And that’s just the next stage of a plan that calls for more homes, rental accommodations and a community center as well.

The $125,000 the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (Houston) gave her in 1999 has disappeared, but there’s plenty to show for it. It is part of the fabric of the lives (and privately owned homes) of nine working families and a retired postal worker in Hernando West Side Hills, a 10-house development that’s replaced an in-town slum of collapsing shacks, crack houses, crime and grime.

Rural America remains a world apart, and the Mississippi Delta is further apart than most. “Delta” refers to those western counties of Mississippi that border the Mississippi River. Mississippi has the lowest annual per capita income of any state: $18,700. Connecticut has the highest: $37,000.

Tumbledown shacks pockmark shabby, crumbling Delta towns such as Hushpuckena, Shelby, Winstonville and Shaw, which dot the edges of Highway 61 southward from the northern state line.

And with little communities of new rental homes in Walls, DeSoto County, and the Hernando project, the Sacred Heart Southern Missions, with Adams as its housing director, attempts to make a dent.

In Hernando the sales price has to be subsidized. The two-bath, three-bedroom homes go in the mid-$60,000 range, low enough for the owners to carry the $300 to $350 a month (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) mortgage. These houses sell for at least $10,000 below market value.

“We could have built cheaper out of town,” said Adams. But that wasn’t the point. The goal was to revitalize the town of Hernando.

With an MBA and boundless energy, Adams in effect plays poor peoples’ Monopoly: juggling land and state, federal and private monies in an attempt to give the working poor a break in the real estate game. Such non-profit groups as Habitat for Humanity and Mercy Housing also do what they can to alleviate a housing problem that afflicts the entire nation. All over the United States, housing costs are pushing the working poor toward hunger and deeper into poverty. Sharon Daley of Catholic Charities USA described the nationwide consequences of high rents and vanishing affordable housing:

“After paying rent, there’s too little left,” Daley said. Too little left, in many cases, even with income from two jobs.

“We’ve got 9 million people a year coming into Catholic Charities agencies, affiliated parishes and other church agencies for emergency food,” Daley said. “That’s worse in many ways than when Robert Kennedy visited Mississippi.”

Daley referred to U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy, who visited Mississippi in 1967 in conjunction with Senate hearings into a national problem of hunger.

“It’s worse,” she said, “because people shouldn’t have to go to parish pantries and soup kitchens to survive when they’re working full-time.”

Hugging the bottom

Mississippi’s social well-being statistics hug the bottom of the U.S. social survey tables for poor quality education, health care, access to services and welfare. Thirty-three years after Kennedy’s visit, there is still hunger in Mississippi.

“Sure, oh sure there is,” said Paula Witek, Southern Missions social services director. “They come in. We have a food pantry in Walls and we work very closely with three other interfaith food pantries where people arrive really needing food. It’s not just temporary shortages. I think they’re actually going hungry,” said Witek, who has worked the social scene with the urban poor, too. “What happens is they’ll come in and say, ‘I need food.’ Good social workers then say, ‘Fine. But why do you need the food?’ And they find the family has no money for groceries because they’ve had to pay a doctor’s bill or a hospital bill. Or rent.”

Housing costs nationwide are now routinely 60 to 70 percent of a working poor person’s income. HUD, the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, reports “The housing affordability crisis facing very low-income renters worsens as 5.4 million renter households, a record high, experience ‘worst case’ needs,” meaning people have nowhere to live. These 5.4 million are employed Americans. Hardest hit, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are “minority households, particularly working families with children.”

But the rent-or-eat crisis message isn’t getting through to the public, in part, said Daley, because of food pantries. “Bobby Kennedy was able to dramatize the hunger by taking TV cameras into a poor person’s home and showing there was no food in the kitchen cabinets,” she said. “Now if you go into a poor person’s home, you will find food -- but it’s from the parish or soup kitchen. Is that the standard we aspire to in a country as rich as this?”

“Catholics and Jews take their children who are about to be confirmed or ‘bar mitzvahed’ to volunteer in soup kitchens and pantries,” said Daley. “We’re teaching kids that this is a good thing. Right? This is what God wants us to do. I don’t think it’s what God wants us to do. I think God wants us to create a just society where a person who works all day can buy their own groceries and sit at their own kitchen table with their children.” Rents, she said, are crippling the working poor people’s chances of moving up.

Doing what they can

Volunteer agencies like Southern Missions cannot make up for the rich-poor gap, they simply do what they can.

For many in the nine northern Mississippi counties, including the Delta counties of DeSoto and Tunica, Sacred Heart Southern Missions is the Catholic church. It’s in Mississippi’s northern diocese, Jackson, which covers 80 percent of the state and has a total of 45,000 Catholics. The nine counties have 4,500 Catholics in 4,200 square miles.

“We have eight parishes, three missions, two elementary schools, 23 social service workers, an AIDS counselor and housing ministries,” said Sacred Heart Fr. Charles Yost, Southern Missions interim executive director. And when it comes to Mississippi housing, Yost, who’s worked in Indonesia, said the state’s worst rivals Indonesia’s worst.

Adams, who has been in Central America and worked in U.S. inner cities, compares Mississippi’s substandard housing to that of Third World countries.

Mississippi is not alone. Across America thousands of Americans live in shacks, frequently with no electricity, no toilets and no running water, except perhaps a spigot they share with a neighbor.

Marvels of Dehon Village

God knows there are a lot of shacks in Mississippi. Glorious and Freddie Sevire lived in one. Glorious Sevire is a sweet-faced young woman, too shy to have her photograph taken, even with her youngest child. She and her husband are nonetheless willing to talk about the nice two-bath, four-bedroom Dehon Village rental house they live in, and the shack they moved from.

The other place “leaked at one end and let water run in at the other,” Glorious said, her smile fleeting. “There was no plumbing or running water. The toilet was outdoors.”

To qualify for a Dehon house in Walls, Miss., a family’s income has to be less than 50 percent of the state’s median. In most non-urban area counties in Mississippi, that means less than $12,000 a year. Freddie Sevire, a former plantation tractor driver, is retired, and the family income is less than $10,000. It’s a tough financial stretch, said Glorious, adding proudly: “But the rent is always the first thing paid.”

Southern Missions’ Dehon Village, a 38-rental home development, is a local marvel, though a marvel that is not entirely welcome, for it houses poor black families.

The village, named for the Sacred Heart Fathers’ founder, Fr. Leon Dehon, has its own Southern Missions-supported social services on site. Services include staff, such as Village Manager Ruth Purdy and whatever supportive programs are necessary to enable the residents to reach self-sufficiency. For some that means helping put food on the table; for others, preparing for the test for a high school equivalency diploma or other job preparation. There’s a computer lab, and crafts and art taught by Indonesian Sr. Angeli Lim, recognizable in town for riding her bicycle home with her umbrella up when it rains.

Financing for Dehon village includes, along with Southern Missions’ support, a five-year $500,000 subsidy from the Daughters of Charity. But Dehon Village and many other activities in Mississippi’s nine northern counties survive primarily because the Southern Mission operates the Sacred Heart League in Walls. The league is one of the nation’s more sophisticated direct mail fund-raising operations. It offers prayers, prayer books and pamphlets, and asks for donations, though the approach is not a hard sell. Yost is the league’s spiritual director.

In a region where less than 2 percent of the population is Catholic, the $6 million to $7 million Sacred Heart League annual income is the financial mainstay of the church’s activities.

Preparing people for work is a prime social service. Since the plantations mechanized and went to chemical weed and crop control, there haven’t been many farm jobs. In the Delta, many unemployed have never worked.

Despite new jobs at 14 riverboat gambling casinos, clustered on manicured sites that once were Mississippi riverside plantation fields, and a low state unemployment rate -- down from 18 percent to between 4 and 5 percent -- there’s not much comfort in statistics in the 12 Delta counties. Along the Delta, where welfare rolls have been cut by 77 percent, unemployment is three times the national average.

Poor counties unpopular

Further, state aid is not a priority. These poor, rural counties are not popular with some elected officials. One legislator told his colleagues that if the state could get rid of the Delta counties, Mississippi would be “a great place to live.”

Not to the young mother Linda Raff is thinking about. Raff, the executive director for Catholic Charities of the Jackson diocese, told of a young woman, not atypical, who gets up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus to work, travels two hours each way for her minimum wage job, in order to maintain benefits and Medicaid.

In Tunica, Dominican Srs. Angela Susalla and “Gus” Griffin at Catholic Social Services speak of people from other parts of Mississippi living in their cars in hopes of landing even low-paying casino work.

Local residents who do land the $6.50 to $7 an hour housekeeping and coin-counting shifts at the slot machine palaces, live in a region of long distances and lonely rural roads.

“Most poor people don’t have cars,” said social worker Sister of Charity of Nazareth Janice Richards, “and they pay those who do have them perhaps $10 a day to get them to and from work. But the cars poor people drive break down, folks don’t show up for work and soon they’re jobless again.”

And doubling up again in substandard housing.

Everything to do with low-income housing is getting worse. Those who are trying to make inroads work cooperatively. Whether the project is for-sale or rental housing, it’s invariably a cooperative effort funded by multiple sources.

The Hernando West Side Hills project began because the city itself condemned shacks, bulldozed deteriorated structures and allocated federal funds, in the form of a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant for the planning stage. Sacred Heart Southern Missions was invited in to make it happen because of its track record with Dehon Village.

With the site map for Hernando Phase II propped up against her office window, Sr. Betty Adams described the plan: more new two-bath, three-bedroom houses for sale, new rental accommodations (two-year maximum stay) for people seeking to move into permanent housing, plus a community center staffed by Southern Missions.

Catholics be warned. With $1.2 million in hand, Adams is only halfway there. And hunting.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000