CAIRO — At a roundtable talk Tuesday at the Cairo Junior/Senior High School, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin had no real update for a group of seventh graders regarding the future of public housing in Cairo, but gave them a platform to have their voices heard and encouraged them to not give up hope on themselves or their town.
“You can make a difference,” Durbin told the students, who gained national attention last school year after they wrote letters to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson following HUD’s announcement it would be demolishing two housing developments in Cairo.
“You are just as important as anyone else,” Durbin said.
Many of the question Durbin fielded during the talk are what would be expected from a school meeting — how long have you been a senator, where do you stay when not in Washington, have you met the president — but a few hit home.
“What is your course of action for the housing crisis,” Kyle Cook asked.
Durbin replied by telling the students he is advocating for developers to bring prefabricated homes to Cairo to be used for Section 8 housing. He said a lot was still up in the air and that no firm decisions have been made.
After the meeting ended, students filed back to their classes. Demarion Duncan said even though no news was shared by the senator, he still saw the visit as an affirming “life lesson.”
“He said he was going to support us,” Duncan said. “He said he was disagreeing with them about shutting it completely down without having another place for all of us to go.”
This question of where people will go is a common one among students at Cairo schools. Duncan, who lives in the McBride housing complex on Cairo’s southern end, said his family hopes to find a place to stay in Cairo if they can, but he said they are looking to places like Metropolis or Carbondale as second options.
Duncan said he is torn — on the one hand he likes living in Cairo and even in McBride, but he is also tempted by the opportunities other places offer.
Duncan said he was in Atlanta over the summer and was excited to learn that he could play summer baseball there. He was too late this year, but hopes to get to go back south next summer to play. He said there isn’t a similar option for him in Cairo.
Latrece Brooker’s family has already made the decision to leave Cairo and relocate to Cape Girardeau. She will move before winter break.
Brooker said in her last few days at Cairo Junior High School, walking through the halls will remind her of how much she has grown as a student in Cairo. She is both excited and sad to be leaving. Brooker said she is glad for more opportunities, but sad to leave the places and people she has known for so many years.
Durbin said the uncertainty these children are facing is unacceptable.
“They just want to live normal lives. They want to be kids going to school and not worry about this stuff,” he said. “We grownups have to do a better jobs.”
Natalie Phelps Finnie, who recently replaced Brandon Phelps as state representative of the 118th District, sat in on the meeting and said she wanted students at the school to know she and others in Springfield and Washington have their backs.
“When government fails them, they lose trust,” she said. “I wanted to give them a message of, ‘Don’t lose hope.’”
When questioned about specific next steps for Cairo’s housing residents, Durbin said he didn’t have many answers, but will continue to fight, despite proposed funding cuts to HUD’s budget coming from the White House — he said he isn’t sure what kind of support he could expect for proposals made to HUD for new buildings.
“It’s a bad time in Washington to be looking for initiative and leadership in this area, but we are going to continue to try,” Durbin said.