CAIRO — U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth said that her visit to Cairo on Sunday revealed that both a lack of appropriate communication and conflicting information is aggravating the housing situation and the community’s attempts to rebuild.
“It’s definitely a crisis and there’s still a lack of information being passed on to the appropriate people,” Duckworth said following a meeting with public housing residents, and a discussion with community leaders at City Hall.
Duckworth said that, for example, a top HUD administrator in the agency’s Chicago field office informed her that housing officials conducted a survey of Elmwood and McBride residents that showed the majority of people want to be relocated to another community, regardless of what they might say publicly.
But Duckworth said the vast majority of residents she’s spoken to say just the opposite — that they want to stay in Cairo.
“Why is it that you in Chicago are getting a different picture through your chain of reporting than what is happening here? … That’s why I think we’re still in crisis mode, we still have to deal with this because obviously the system is still not working the way it needs to be,” Duckworth said.
In response to the newspaper’s inquiry about the survey Duckworth mentioned, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the agency is not prepared to release it at this time, as it is still being finalized.
Despite running into some conflicting information, Duckworth said her weekend visit to Cairo was productive. Duckworth said she’s scheduled to meet this Thursday with HUD Secretary Ben Carson and plans to share with him some of what she learned on her trip to the southernmost city in Illinois.
“I wish he would come to visit,” she said. “I don’t know that he will but I will convey to him that he really should come to visit.”
Duckworth said she had three main goals that she wanted to accomplish in her meetings with residents and city leaders. She said at the top of that list was hearing directly from the residents about their situation and what she could do to help. She also said she wanted to communicate to the citizens of Cairo what actions she’s taken to date related to the planned relocation of about 400 people from two developments in the city and the alleged mismanagement of federal program funds by past managers of the Alexander County Housing Authority.
Duckworth said she shared with the residents that she and Sen. Dick Durbin have pressed HUD’s Office of Inspector General to complete its investigation into what went wrong at the ACHA and also to perform an audit that can be shared publicly.
“The contracts that they were in were just absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of negligence here, and negligence is something that can be punished.” Duckworth said responsible parties can be held responsible in a variety of ways, which can include criminal charges, if appropriate, as well as executive branch actions that can be taken to claw back misspent money.
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The third objective Duckworth said she had for the trip was to talk to residents and city officials about what can and should be done to move the city forward in terms of jobs and other opportunities.
Duckworth said she had said to elected officials, “We need to alleviate the situation now, but what are we going to do to make sure we bring economic development into the area?”
Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman said it was one of the more productive meetings he’s been a part of in recent months because Duckworth did more than just talk — she helped move the needle. Duckworth said that while she agrees former housing authority and city leaders should be held accountable for mismanagement of the past, she said the current administration needs to step up to the plate and be held accountable for what happens next.
“We can’t be in opposition forever and we can’t spend five, six, seven, eight years saying ‘We’re the new guy, it’s not our fault, it’s that other guy's fault,’” she said.
Duckworth said she believes that Cairo can improve its position, but it will take work and commitment from a variety of people, she said. “You’ve got to come up with something tangible.”
Cairo Unit School District 1 Superintendent Andrea Evers, who was in the meetings with Duckworth, said the dialogue with the senator was helpful.
“I thought it was reassuring (that) she really wanted to know the impact on the families, first and foremost, and also how the relocation and displacement of residents would affect the whole community, including the school district.”
When one mother talked about how her 21-year-old son’s epilepsy and how much she appreciated him being able to attend a small school district where all the staff knew about his medical condition, Evers said Duckworth pushed aside a table and took that mothers hands in hers while she spoke.
“It was a mother-to-mother moment. It was something unique,” Evers said.
Evers said the school district is still sorting through what the relocation plans will mean for their enrollment this fall, and she shared what that uncertainty means to the district with Duckworth.
“I think if nothing else, concerns were heard and I think there will be follow through,” she said. “I do believe that she has a true desire to help.”