MS pledges help for uninsured

Mississippi's Homeowners Assistance Grant Program for hurricane survivors is being improved.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 26, 2006

"Many people are not astute financial managers and they need financial management skills."

—Mary Ellen Calvert

Mississippi's Homeowners Assistance Grant Program for hurricane survivors is being improved.

After rolling out a first phase of funds for people who maintained homeowners insurance, the state is announcing a second phase that could help uninsured people. Thousands of people in both categories are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Uninsured people are clearly in need: 8,000 people applied for the second phase before it even existed, said Scott Hamilton, director of communications for the Mississippi Development Authority.

The need is no surprise to disaster responders, who expressed more surprise when the state initially rolled out a program that helped only people with insurance.

Mississippi has the nation's second lowest per capita income - yet the highest rate of home ownership. Add this up, Hamilton said, and "people are having a lot of problems" because the first phase of Mississippi's housing recovery plan ignores two very vulnerable groups: retirees who have no mortgage and are uninsured, and low-income families that had no insurance.

"A retiree might have bought a home 20 years ago for $80,000 that's now worth $200,000," said Hamilton.

And in Mississippi there are plenty of people who are low-income, owned their home before it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and had no mortgage. "Then they had to make a tough decision whether to buy insurance or whether to buy food or medicine," said Hamilton.

The second phase of the program will officially roll out in about 30 days, Hamilton predicted, because the Mississippi Housing and Urban Development is still approving it. After that, the state will reopen service centers to take applications. The new plan will include provisions for rental property owners who rent to low-to-moderate income people as well, Hamilton added.

Meanwhile, thousands of people who were eligible for the first phase of assistance are still waiting for their checks. Some local press reports indicate that, out of 17,000 homeowners who applied for grants, less than 100 have received checks.

To help people learn the status of their grant, the state is reopening two service centers - one in Gulfport and one in Gautier. "People can actually just walk in," Hamilton said.

Unfortunately agents on site don't have access to the computer systems that provide such information. Instead, applicants will fill out a "trouble ticket," and wait for someone to respond.

Caseworkers in the field helping hurricane survivors report some applicants are able to navigate the required paperwork, while others are stymied. "The paperwork is somewhat navigable," said Mary Ellen Calvert, chair of the Harrison County Long Term Recovery Coalition. "But it is a little bit harder for our senior citizens. Also, the literacy rate in Mississippi is not great. Many people are not astute financial managers and they need financial management skills."

Before Hurricane Katrina struck, the state had more programs in place to help people access basic financial training or other life skills training, said Calvert. Now, that job is falling more on the shoulders of already over-burdened caseworkers from faith-based and voluntary agencies. "We're working hard," she said. "The people we now need to target are the ones that need one-on-one financial literacy skills."

Hamilton said the state grant program has a designated special needs coordinator, and that caseworkers should contact the state if an applicant needs extra help.

"What the case managers are hearing is the homeowners grant application is difficult to understand for many of their clients - not just the elderly," said Maria Morris, case management coordinator for Lutheran Social Service Disaster Response.

"In addition," she said, "for the few who are actually receiving checks now, the final grant award check is significantly lower than the amount applied for because all other funds received are subtracted from the awarded amount, thus leaving them with a large shortfall of what is needed to restore their homes."

It's doubtful that anybody will receive what they need to restore their pre-hurricane life, agreed Hamilton. "I don't think it's going to necessarily provide a single person with getting them way back to where they were before the storm," he said. "But it's also more help than the federal government has ever given."

Why did the first phase seem to help people who already had resources? Because, Hamilton said, at that point state officials were vying for more recovery money from the federal level.

"I don't know that the federal government would have ever given us any money if we said, 'bail out everybody,' " Hamilton said. "But the way it has played out, in some ways, you're helping the people most able to help themselves first."

Nonetheless, insured people do have a right to government money, he added. "The basic argument was that there was a whole group of people - thousands of people - who relied on the federal government's designation of a flood zone. And the government was, to their detriment, catastrophically wrong. For the insured people, it wasn't a case of people not taking their own personal responsibility. They had the wrong kind of insurance."

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