Inequity deep in MS recovery

Mississippi's low-income and minority communities are caught in a rip-tide of social inequity as hurricane recovery wears on, said advocates Thursday.

BY SUSAN KIM | JACKSON, Miss. | October 20, 2005



"In addition to supporting the direct delivery of services, encourage your religious institutions to promote public policy-making that creates justice for all."

—Karen Lash


Mississippi's low-income and minority communities are caught in a rip-tide of social inequity as hurricane recovery wears on, said advocates Thursday.

As volunteer lawyers canvassed the state's hurricane-damaged coastal communities, they report tenants are returning home to find locks changed and people able to pay higher rent occupying their home. Others are coming home to find their possessions confiscated - including medications and toys - allegedly to cover lost rent. Hundreds of people are being denied insurance claims because the storm damage has been deemed "flood" - not covered - rather than the more oft-covered "hurricane" category.

Volunteer lawyer Karen Lash said she believes tens of thousands of foreclosures were looming in the state. "Remarkably," she pointed out, "Mississippi's 72 percent home ownership rate exceeds the national average." And many families are losing their homes simply because they still can't access their bank account. To compound the loss, many homeowners - particularly elderly ones - are getting scammed by predatory lenders.

The need for legal help has become so apparent that the Mississippi Center for Justice is establishing a coastal branch office in the North Gulfport, where volunteer lawyers will offer pro bono legal help for low-income people.

Faith-based disaster response groups and local churches have been key in calling attention to people's potential legal needs, said representatives of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Lash urged her colleagues to stay connected with the faith community. "Continue to be in contact with your local churches and synagogues to see how you can help their efforts - and be aware that needs continue to change and evolve - so contact in the affected regions is key," she urged. "In addition to supporting the direct delivery of services, encourage your religious institutions to promote public policy-making that creates justice for all."

The Mississippi Supreme Court has entered an order to allow out-of-state attorneys to come offer free legal services in the state in connection with Katrina.

When the Mississippi Center for Justice branch office opens its doors in North Gulfport, center leaders said they hoped to provide a place where faith-based and voluntary agencies handling case management can refer people with legal needs. The center also works with the Mississippi Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.

David Miller, an equal justice works fellow at the center, said he worries about people employed in the service industry along the Mississippi coast. The casinos alone employed more than 17,000 people in service jobs, he said. "Tax revenue from that was five percent of the state budget."

Poultry workers are another vulnerable group often forced into silence in legal terms because many of them are undocumented citizens, said Norman Chronister, policy and communications advocate at the center. "The way most poultry houses are constructed - almost all of them were blown away. That put the processing plants out of work which put the poultry workers out of work."

Over the last decade, low-income families who landed service jobs on the coast had become an emerging middle class, added Chronister. "People who never had much of a life were starting to make it. Some of these people never dreamed they'd get a job in their life."

Now, Miller said, there are concerns that plans for a rebuild could shut out low- and middle-income families. "I think a lot of these rebuild plans will have people divesting their property - and I'm not talking about wealthy people. I am talking about people who can't afford that kind of construction. How are they going to get all this property? What's going to be a reasonable price to buy people out?"

Hurricane Katrina was a great equalizer in certain ways, Miller added. "I mean, it was a great equalizer in some sense. You had people living in $2 million houses standing in line trying to get ice and water, just like everybody else. It made everybody vulnerable at least for a time. But when they rebuild and get things back to 'normal,' - are they going to put it back like it was, where certain people are continually left out?"

Will Hurricane Katrina make people more accepting of their neighbors and more conscious of the deep economic rifts in the state? "I'm sure it will - at least in the short term," said Miller. "I hope that will carry over. Everybody needs a safe place to live."

Miller added that he's seen some interesting ideas for rebuilding towns. "One in particular recommended building the beach houses further back from the beach - but having what look like outbuildings behind the houses that would be low-income accessible housing. On one hand you don't want to put people in outbuildings because it looks like slave quarters. On the other hand, at least they're trying to think about it while they're starting from scratch."

If social justice advocates can make their voice heard, a rebuilt Mississippi could be a more socially just society, said Chronister. "It's the only time in the history of America we've had such a clean slate. What we need is cooperation and commitment from the people making the decisions."


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Related Links:

Mississippi Center for Justice

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