Living on the margin made worse by north Mpls. tornado

Sitting with belongings
With most of her belongings sitting nearby, Kathy Stewart makes a phone call at the Starlite Motel in Columbia Heights, Minn. Friday, June 17, 2011. Stewart and her fiancee moved from the shelter at North Commons and are planning to stay at the motel for at least two weeks.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak goes to the White House Monday to explore federal aid options, nearly a month after a deadly tornado swept through some of the city's most economically distressed neighborhoods.

Many north side residents have begun rebuilding their homes, and rebuilding their lives. But the recovery will be slower for people who were already living in the margins.

Some houses on the north side are buzzing with the sound of air compressors and nail guns.

But not Leonard Searcy's home. It's all quiet in his front yard, aside from the pink toy car that his young daughter is scooting around in.

Searcy shares the damaged rental house on Knox Avenue with his two children, his mom, and nine other family members.

"We have leakage when it rains. We have holes in our windows. It's not the best place to live, I guess," Searcy said.

But it was never a perfect home. Searcy says it needed some work when his family, then on the verge of homelessness, moved in last year.

"You get desperate for a place, and being desperate you take the options that are given to you," he said.

Now, he says his only option is to wait for the landlord to make the needed repairs. Searcy says he hasn't seen the owner since the May 22 storm.

It will be a long recovery for folks like Searcy and his family.

Looking for permanent housing
Delray Meanweather stands outside his room at the Starlite Motel in Columbia Heights, Minn. Friday, June 17, 2011. Meanweather and his fiancee are hoping to find permanent housing in the next few weeks. "All I can do is look at this as a new beginning," he said.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

City Council Member Don Samuels, who represents parts of the north side, says extreme weather is often the great equalizer — touching people of every class and walk of life. But this time, weather became what he calls "the aggravator of inequity."

The path of the storm blazed a trail through areas with some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the city, and inflamed pre-existing pain. About half the properties on the north side are rentals.

"This is not the typical tornado scenario, going through the heartland of America," Samuels said. "This is urban core America, with communities that are struggling."

Samuels says he's not sure if the Federal Emergency Management Agency understood that when they denied the state's request to help individual residents and businesses. FEMA will pay the local governments for emergency work and damage to public buildings.

Samuels thinks if the tornado struck the more affluent southwest Minneapolis, the aftermath would look a bit different.

"I don't think we realized this tornado needed a social services response immediately."

"Virtually everyone would have family they could go to, or a bank account they could draw on, insurance that would pay them, or personal survival skills that would make them, even without money, reach out to the city in a very savvy way, and negotiate the process," said Samuels.

In contrast, many folks on the north side are transients, coming from Detroit or Chicago, or even Thailand. They may not have family or friends to rely on. They might not want help from the government. Some were already struggling with mental illness, past evictions, and other traditional barriers to housing.

Even without those issues, finding vacancies in rental housing, especially on the north side, is tough. Some streets were already filled with empty houses because of the foreclosure crisis, and the tornado wiped out hundreds more.

Last week, Anthony Thomas, 21, was one of three dozen tornado victims who were still staying at an emergency shelter. The consensus among a group of shelter residents was that the recovery efforts were going too slowly.

Temporary housing
Kathy Stewart and her fiancee Delray Meanweather, center, spend time with family members including Pamela Mapp, left, her son Trayvon Williams, 2, and Ed Garth in their room at the Starlite Motel in Columbia Heights, Minn. Friday, June 17, 2011. Stewart and Meanweather, who were left homeless after a tornado damaged their apartment building in north Minneapolis, have been staying at the Starlite Motel since Thursday, June 16.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

After the storm battered his apartment building, Thomas found himself in the exact circumstances of a homeless person — but he refused to go to a traditional homeless shelter.

"You got people who are drug addicts, ex-cons. I don't have none of that, so why would I be put in a situation dealing with them type of people?" he said. "That's going to make my situation worse. Hennepin County won't bail me me out if something happens."

One day later, Thomas moved into a motel in Columbia Heights, where he could sleep in a real bed and use a private shower. The nonprofit Elim Transitional Housing arranged the hotel accommodations, and is lining up permanent housing for residents.

In addition, Hennepin County has moved 40 families out of shelters and into rental units.

Last week, city inspectors stepped up their reviews of hundreds of badly damaged homes. They issued work orders to quicken the pace of repairs, and are working with Hennepin County social workers as they try to move people out of unsafe houses.

Overall, most government officials say the recovery effort has gone smoothly, despite some brutally long waits for help in the days following the storm.

At the Disaster Recovery Center, more than 3,000 families received social services and basic needs — ranging from food stamps to tarps and cleaning supplies.

"I don't think we realized this tornado needed a social services response immediately," said Matthew Ayres, project manager for the city and county's Office to End Homelessness. "Once that became clear, we definitely developed the processes and relationships we needed to make that happen."

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority is setting aside 100 Section 8 vouchers for people displaced by the tornado. First priority will go to residents who were already on a waiting list of several thousand people.

Meanwhile, city officials say they're looking ahead. A plan introduced last week before the Minneapolis City Council would give $600,000 to north-side neighborhood groups for longer-term rebuilding efforts.

The idea is to stabilize the community in the two years following the storm, and prevent it from further disrepair and depopulation.

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