CAIRO – It’s about 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon when the bus rolls up to McBride Apartments and dozens of children pour out.
Among them are brothers Jaydon, 8, and Angelo, 7. The boys make their way across the lawn and then run through their front door. They fling backpacks off their shoulders to mom’s “Hi, babies!” greeting, and their arms disappear into their bags pulling out papers, eager to show her the good grades they earned that day, and to provide a report of another exciting day at Cairo Elementary.
They don’t pay any attention to the bugs crawling on the wall behind them, or around the sink and kitchen counters. They don’t notice the rusting oven that’s been out of commission for a month because the door won’t close, or the kitchen sink that leaks -- or pours, rather – into a bucket that has to be dumped five times a day.
Perhaps that’s because they are children, and this is all they know.
Maybe it’s because their mom Shayla Brooker does her best to provide a happy home despite an imperfect, sometimes even scary, environment at the housing complex managed by the troubled Alexander County Housing Authority that they and many others call home.
In this moment, it is likely they are just wrapped in the enthusiasm of Brooker’s wide eyes and the acceptance of her huge smile while she takes in every rushed word. There was a skit at school, they tell her. They got to eat pizza. One of the boys said he learned in an experiment that yeast is alive. The other pulls out a copy of his homework to show his mom a perfect grade.
Angelo, a second grader, tells mom that because he and his classmates paid attention to the teacher and have been on their best behavior, they are getting a party the next day, to include root beer floats.
Mom calls for an impromptu “happy dance.”
“Happy dance! Happy dance!” she sing-songs as they all three wiggle their bodies and flail their arms about in laughter in front of a fridge where their school pictures are hanging by magnets.
Time for homework, she tells them, and together, they review what the boys need to accomplish before they can play.
One has an assignment to read a paper about former President Jimmy Carter and then answer questions as part of a crossword puzzle. The other has to study shapes laid over a grid, and figure out how to copy those shapes proportionally onto a blank grid below.
Anyone could see Brooker’s children love school. That’s because she’s emphasized the importance of an education for her two boys and 10-year-old daughter Latrece since they were born.
“I’m so proud of them,” she says as they disappear up the stairs to change out of school clothes, “because they think about school first and they are into school so much, and I put that in their hearts: You have education first; you play later.”
Too dangerous outside
Because of a serious crime problem in the housing complex, play time is in the living room where Brooker has just a love seat, side table and TV. The floor is largely open, she later explained, so they can have a place to run around. To an outsider, the inside-only rule may seem harsh, as if the children are being robbed of the idyllic childhood experience of running around after school with others their age, but Brooker said there’s nothing much idyllic about life in Cairo’s family public housing developments. It’s a necessary rule because they might otherwise be robbed of so much more.
"I worry so much about the influences they see out here,” she said, looking out the door. When it comes to crime, Brooker said that if you can name it, she’s seen it at McBride Place apartments, often within feet of where she and her children are eating dinner or working on homework together.
“I don’t want my kids growing up looking at that and thinking that’s OK to do, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get that age.”
If the children are itching to go outside, she drives them to the park or a relative’s house, Brooker said.
Future of apartments uncertain
The future of the Alexander Housing Authority complexes, where generations of Cairo children have been raised, is uncertain.
Brooker said what she has isn’t much, but it is a roof over their heads. Despite residents' complaints of crime, infestation, and staff that is slow to respond to maintenance concerns, she and others are worried about what is going to happen to the units after reports surfaced declaring what residents have known for years: the McBride and Elmwood family developments operated by the Alexander County Housing Authority, where a few hundred people live, may have deteriorated into conditions beyond repair.
Built some 70 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt was president, the complexes are in rough shape – some officials have expressed concern they may violate basic health and safety standards for human habitation – while at least some money meant to have been spent on maintenance and upkeep is alleged to have instead been squandered by management on generous employee benefits, contracts and retirement incentives, fine dining, excessive travel and gifts.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is charged with overseeing low-income housing programs throughout the country, also has cited the Alexander County Housing Authority, in a 2014 review, for discriminatory practices that included spending a disproportionate amount of money on maintenance and security measures at other complexes in Cairo and nearby Thebes where the tenant population of the buildings are more racially mixed, and predominately white.
Building safety review under way
The McBride and Elmwood apartments almost entirely house African-American families. Herrin-based Eggemeyer Associates Architects, Inc., is expected to have a review completed by the end of October on the viability of the units, so that decisions can be made on how to move forward.
Housing officials say that even if a demolition is required – and that’s far from certain – it would take several years because a plan would have to first be drafted to provide other options for the residents living there. If the buildings must come down, it is estimated the cost to replace those family units in Cairo would be at least $20 million, said Tom Upchurch, who has been the housing authority’s interim executive director for the past six months in addition to his job as director of the Jefferson County Housing Authority.
As for where that money would come from, Upchurch said that’s a question with no ready or easy answers.
“If a decision came down tomorrow to level them, one, you’ve got to have money to level them, which they don’t have. Two, it’s a decision that has to be cleared through HUD and it’s a 24-month-plus decision,” Upchurch said. “What they’re starting to do instead is work in a capacity of trying to make them the best they can, and work with the tenants the best they can.” The buildings themselves are strong, Upchurch said, but other things, such as the electrical wiring and aging appliances, is problematic.
Upchurch took over on a temporary basis in April at the request of HUD. At the time, the housing authority was so financially destitute that paying the light bill and making payroll was uncertain. Upchurch has helped stabilized the situation so that operations can continue, though major improvements will take years, he and others warn.
Upchurch accepted a deal to extend his contract by a few weeks, and his last day is Thursday.
The housing authority’s board is expected to vote Wednesday to transition the interim post to Joann Pink, who is the executive director of the Pulaski County Housing Authority in nearby Mounds. Pink said she, too, understands that the challenges the authority faces will not be corrected overnight.
School officials concerned
Angst regarding the future of the complexes is palpable around Cairo. If families are offered housing in other nearby counties as even part of a remedy, it could devastate the public school district, which is one of the town’s larger employers and an important center of culture, learning and pride. That could further exasperate a town that, despite its prized location at the confluence of two major rivers, has struggled for decades to rebuild its image and economy.
Upchurch said he was told that 60 percent of the children attending Cairo public schools live at McBride or Elmwood apartments. Reached by email on Saturday, Superintendent Andrea Evers said she did not have the information in front of her to confirm the statistic, but she noted the number is significant.
“As a district, we hope housing conditions can be improved so every single one of our children can grow up in our community,” she wrote. “The closure of even portions of either Elmwood or McBride, I fear, would have an irreparable and devastating impact in our community and school system.”
An image problem
Mayor Tyrone Coleman said reports in recent months of allegations of corruption and discrimination by former managers make it difficult for the city to step away from the stereotypes about Cairo – that it is dangerous, racially charged, destitute and overrun with corruption. Coleman said progress is being made to improve the town’s economy, and he believes Cairo could thrive again, but when stories like those involving the housing authority’s alleged mismanagement hit the news and circulate, “It’s just something else that’s two steps forward and one step back.”
Federal agents are reported to have removed boxes of paperwork and equipment from the housing authority’s offices on Thursday. Coleman said he hopes that whatever is going to happen in the way of an investigation or review happens quickly, so that positive changes can be made and the town can move forward.
Looking for a way out
Brooker said she has read the reports about what is alleged to have happened at the housing authority, and heard other rumors. When several hundred people are packed into a couple of nearby complexes, word travels fast, she said.
It makes her mad, she said, and she wants to see improvements, or find a way out so that she can provide a more stable living environment for her children. But when options are limited for work, it can be tough to save enough money to move on, she said.
Brooker said she spends nearly every weekday looking for a job, or earning money by using her car to transport neighbors without a vehicle to the grocery store, doctor’s office or other appointments. She’s left two gas station jobs recently, one for personal reasons involving her colleagues and the other because the hours were taking her away from the children.
It’s been a tough few years for Brooker, 29. The family had been living in a nicer apartment in Cairo owned by Shawnee Enterprises, Inc., a company based out of Marion that, according to its website, specializes in subsidized housing throughout Southern Illinois. Brooker said the apartment was in her mom’s name, and she lived there with the children as the caretaker for her mother, who qualified because she was disabled.
But when her mom died on Oct. 6, 2013, the apartment manager said she would have to leave, because they were no longer eligible to live there. That’s when she landed at McBride Place apartments. Today, she wonders if she should have held out for something better, but she had to act quickly.
Brooker said things weren’t that bad when she first landed at McBride – at least, she said, she felt like she could make it work.
She's even willing to overlook the problems with the apartment that are largely just inconveniences, she said, such as the sock she had to place in her back security door after she asked for a repair on a loose knob and they responded by removing the door knob entirely. She said someone told her she would eventually get a new door, but that was six months ago. The front door hasn’t locked from the outside for months, either, she said, because a child stuck something in the key hole, and requests for repairs have gone unanswered.
But she is more frustrated by ongoing problems with basic appliances essential to everyday living.
About six weeks ago, she said, the oven door jammed, and it would not open or close, making it inoperable. She could heat food in the microwave or on the stovetop, but it was disappointing because the children like to help her bake, and as a single mom of three, she said it is nice to be able to throw a prepared casserole or chicken fingers into the oven now and then.
Around the same time, she said, a pipe busted below the sink. She placed a bucket underneath, and put in a work order request. What Brooker first described as leak was actually all the running water gushing from a severed pipe into the bucket.
Though she said it took in excess of a month, Brooker followed up on Saturday with the newspaper to say the sink had been fixed and the oven replaced as of this past week.
Hiding the worry
While she worries, Brooker said she does the best she can to make it so the children don’t notice the things that keep her up at night. She tries to remain upbeat about the struggles she’s facing. For instance, she said, one good thing about the leaking sink is that it provided her a chance for regular exercise carrying a heavy bucket to the yard.
“That’s why I’ve got these muscles,” she said with a laugh as she flexed and pointed at the muscular swell of her upper right arm.
Brooker said she hopes her children see her strength and good humor in the face of adversity, and are inspired by it to do even better for themselves. That is an attitude her mother and aunt instilled in her, and she said she’ll do her best to pass along this message to her children: “What you see mommy do, go even further than what mommy does, because you can push further than what mommy can do."
She continued:“If you have the education, the love, and the support from me to push further in life, you can do whatever you want if you just set your mind to it.”