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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Homes at the end of the road

After Katrina, life for children in a FEMA trailer park is still provisional, its pleasures humble and its dreams always just out of reach.

June 08, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Pascagoula, Miss. — NOEL Jones, 8, and his 12-year-old buddy Wendell "Papa" Williams, were strolling recently through their post-Katrina trailer park -- a self-contained universe of gravel streets, rows of white box homes and dogs on short chains.

It was hot and humid, and seven hours before the start of hurricane season. There is no playground here, no basketball court. The boys were a little bored.

They showed off the metal fence they jump to get to the swamp, with its alligators and snapping turtles. Soon they would show off the trammeled part of the fence that leads to their clubhouse in the woods.

But first, they ran into Rendell Johnson, 28, coming home from his forklift job at the shipyard. Sometimes Johnson pays the boys to do odd jobs, but not tonight.

He and his wife were saving up for the moment when they, like the residents of the other 67 trailers here, would be asked to leave. No one had asked them yet, but they figured it was inevitable: The Pascagoula City Council had stripped this park and two others of their zoning status two weeks earlier.

"If I was able to go somewhere else, I wouldn't be here," Johnson said angrily, noting Hurricane Katrina had flooded him out of his old apartment.

The boys walked on. Their clubhouse was a clearing in the trash-strewn woods, decorated with old truck tires and seat cushions. Papa flopped down, his hands behind his head, and described his ideal home: "I'd like to live in a palace, or a mansion," he said. "Or just in a plain, big house -- with a good family."

Their families are among hundreds in Pascagoula -- and thousands more across the Southeast -- that remain in trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up after the August 2005 hurricane, many of them clustered on temporary sites. The agency, which typically provides temporary housing for 18 months after a disaster, has extended the deadline for leaving the trailers to March 2009, an acknowledgment of the difficulties many face in relocating.

But Pascagoula is one of numerous local governments that are hoping to move families out of the trailers long before that deadline. Local politicians see the trailer parks as hotbeds of crime, and a blight to neighborhoods. Also, no one thinks the trailers will be safe in the next big hurricane.

Pascagoula City Manager Kay J. Kell said now that the parks are illegal, the city will ask residents to come in so local officials can help them find permanent housing. "You've got too many people living in very compact borders," Kell said. " It's a very depressing place to live."

The city has not yet set an eviction date. That is because many families have no place to go, said Reilly Morse, a lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public-interest law firm that advocates for the poor. Though millions of dollars in government subsidies has been earmarked for building affordable post-storm housing in Mississippi, few units have been built, Morse said. Rents at many apartment complexes, meanwhile, have skyrocketed.

"Affordable, permanent solutions for people in FEMA trailers just haven't materialized," said Morse, who has filed a legal challenge to Pascagoula's refusal to renew zoning permits for the parks.

So, for the time being, this is Noel and Papa's home: an unnamed, unmarked grid of trailers, set in the crook of a middle-class subdivision, on a lot next to a U.S. Army Reserve Center.

Apart from the trash in the woods, the place is clean and orderly -- though no more charming than military barracks. All the trailers here are three-bedroom units, the kind the government set aside for large families. They are indistinguishable save for differing eight-digit serial numbers stamped on their sides. Between them, patches of sand are cluttered with bikes and barbecue grills.

The boys know most of the other children who run around here. Most are black, like Noel and Papa, but there are white and Latino kids too. Sometimes they get along. Sometimes they don't.

The boys know the parents who are working hard but can't afford to leave. They know the parents who aren't working at all. They know the parents on disability, the parents with personal problems -- the kinds whom social workers would call the "hard to house" even if they weren't hurricane survivors.

For better or for worse, this is their neighborhood.

"We feel like they shouldn't kick us out," Papa said. "Because we've been here a really long time."

--

PAPA has big brown eyes that easily betray his emotions. He is clean-cut in a striped T-shirt and sneakers, with a spry, athletic body like a coiled spring.

Hoping to introduce his mom, he bounded up the wooden steps of his trailer.

The interior was spartan and relatively spacious: There was a kitchenette, and a table and chairs. Baby photos were tacked to a flimsy off-white wall. A cigarette burned in an ashtray.

Papa walked into a bedroom, following the relentless boom of a gangster rap track, and emerged alone.

"She says she can't come out," he said. "She's sick."

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