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CAIRO — This past Friday, Dorothy Salley sat outside her McBride Place unit keeping a close eye on a half dozen children playing in an inflatable swimming pool. As the children splashed water and giggled under the hot late-afternoon sun, she bounced her baby nephew on her knee and talked about what lies ahead for her family.

“Time to go.”

That was her response when asked if she had made up her mind about what to do since Housing and Urban Development announced plans to begin relocating about 185 families from McBride and Elmwood apartments because they are unsafe.

Salley said part of her wants to stay in Cairo, but a bigger part is prepared to move to another community and build a better life for her family. “With me pregnant … I’m going to go for better conditions,” she said. Touching her stomach, Salley said she recently found out she’s pregnant with her second child.

Salley said that while Cairo may be a nice option for older, retired people, it doesn’t offer much for young adults in need of jobs and educational and after-school programs for their children.

This is the lesser told story of the housing crisis in Cairo. Emotionally packed community meetings in recent weeks have focused on banding together to save the town and school from what many see as HUD’s misguided decision to begin the relocation process without providing new housing in Cairo.

Those who want to stay tend to be the most vocal about the situation and efforts are afoot to provide additional housing options for those individuals. At the same time, there also are a number of people quietly working their way through the process of moving on, who say they are thankful for the opportunity before them.

Salley said her goal is to find a home to rent in Marion before the start of the school year, so that her son, 6-year-old Jquan, can start first grade in their new town. She said the educational system in Marion is “way, way, way better” than what’s available to the children of Cairo. She also hopes to find work in Marion once she’s settled in working as a certified nursing assistant.

Giving her children their best possible chance to succeed is the most important factor in her decision about what to do, she said. Salley said she’s working with a HUD-funded relocation specialist to help find a private landlord that will accept the Tenant Protection Voucher that HUD has made available to all residents relocating from their public housing developments in Cairo.

Similar to HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher program, Tenant Protection Vouchers subsidize the rent of a qualified individual paid to their private landlord.

Generally, people with tenant-based vouchers pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent and essential utilities, such as electric and gas. The voucher covers the difference within HUD’s fair market rent guidelines, which vary by area based on a formula that considers cost of living. 

This past Wednesday, speaking before a U.S. Senate panel as part of a back-and-forth concerning the Cairo housing crisis with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said he is “all ears” if someone has a better solution than the one HUD has presented to move families from their inadequate housing units.

But Carson and other HUD officials have conveyed on numerous occasions that teams of experts examined all viable alternatives before announcing their decision and found options for additional new affordable housing to be limited by the harsh economic realities facing Cairo.

“This, unfortunately, is a dying community. People don’t have jobs there. …” Carson told a Senate subcommittee on a hearing primarily concerning President Donald Trump’s HUD budget. Community officials and grassroots organizers working to save Cairo and its school system by coming up with solutions to keep families in the community took offense to Carson’s characterization of their town.

Still, other parents who are living the day-to-day struggles in Cairo expressed a similar sentiment in explaining why they want to move — and see HUD’s decision to provide vouchers, rather than build new public housing in Cairo, as a positive step in improving not only their living conditions but their lives as well.

“This is a retirement town,” said Myra Rayford, who also lives at McBride with her young children. “This is not a town I feel, in my eyes, is made for nobody who need a job or got kids because there’s no type of extracurricular activity for the children.”

The lack of constructive activities leads some children to turn to those that cause trouble for them and others, she said. “They end up drinking and getting high, pregnant at 12 years old. The move is good.”

Katrina Simelton agreed. She has older children who are out of school and close to finishing high school as well as an 8-month-old daughter.

“She’s a baby. So my baby is not fixing to grow up here — no no no,” she said. “I think it’s better (to move). And then the way we are living is not cool at all.”

Simelton and Rayford said they can’t afford to wait around to see whether the efforts to improve Cairo’s outlook come to fruition, as such a turnaround could take years and they have children to think about now. 

Rayford said Joliet is among the places she's considering moving as she has family living there. 

“Guess what, if I stay here, I’m going to be doing the same thing I was doing two years ago when you found me in the 300 row, crying because I have no job, crying because I have no car to drive 45 miles to a job,” she said.

In 2016, Alexander County, of which Cairo is the county seat, had the second highest unemployment rate in the state at 9.2 percent, compared to the statewide unemployment rate of 5.9 percent.

Further, though there are successful programs and educators associated with Cairo Unit School District 1, the district is struggling with chronic truancy, low test scores, principal turnover at the Cairo Junior/Senior High School and a loss of student population, according to the Illinois Report Card, which is the state's official source of information about public schools. 

Simelton said despite the efforts to improve the community, it’s not enough for people with young families. She hasn't decided where she wants to go, but said she's exploring her options. 

“I don’t want my daughter growing up here,” Simelton said. “I want my daughter to come down here and visit, because I want (her) to know where (she) came from.

“We are from Cairo, Illinois. But for us to move on and move out, I’m cool with that because it’s a better opportunity for our families.”

Editor's note: The newspaper, as it has for months, continues to cover the Cairo housing crisis from various angles. On Wednesday, the newspaper intends to publish a report about a community meeting held Monday evening at the Cairo Junior/Senior High School during which an update was provided on grassroots efforts to increase the affordable housing options available in Cairo.

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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​



Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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