Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is promising to help hundreds of displaced residents from two derelict housing projects in the rural river town of Cairo, Ill.
Some residents are skeptical of his efforts, however, since Carson’s department is the one that ordered the demolition of their homes.
Earlier this year, HUD announced that it would close rather than fix the crumbling Elmwood and McBride housing projects on the town’s south side, NPR reported. The decision came after years of resident complaints over squalor and poor living conditions while under the alleged mismanagement of the Alexander County Housing Authority.
“There is a big problem here,” Carson said at a hastily organized forum while visiting the town on Tuesday, Aug. 8. “We have to do everything that we have the ability to do to fix it.”
Resident Steven Tarver, who attended the forum, pleaded with the retired neurosurgeon and one-time presidential candidate to lend a helping hand to the struggling community.
“When you were doing your operations, just like they called you and said, ‘Dr. Carson, come. This heart needs to be repumped,'” Tarver said, “our heart needs to be repumped.”
Carson, who was in town to reassure residents who wished to stay in Cairo that HUD would help them find a place to stay, said the agency hasn’t given families a hard move-out date as of yet. For many, it it still uncertain where they will go once the housing projects are torn down.
According to HUD, only 10 families of the 400 people affected have secured new housing.
Though once a thriving port at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, NPR reported that the predominately Black rural town soon became desolate after decades of corruption, economic downturn and racial tension.
“All we need is time,” Phillip Matthews, a pastor and local activist, told the news site.
Matthews said he felt encouraged for the first time in years after a sit-down with Carson and expressed high hopes for the secretary’s vision to rebuild the small community. City leaders are reportedly working with the state to build a new port that could create much-needed economic growth.
Some residents like Melvin Duncan, 38, aren’t jumping for joy just yet, however. The longtime local, who’s lived in the McBride projects for most of his life, said he had his reservations about Carson’s seemingly goodhearted efforts.
“I think it’s a political thing, the reason why he’s coming down here,” Duncan told NPR. “He already sent a letter saying it’s unfortunate, but we can’t help you.”
If it came down to it, the Illinois man said he’d be the last to leave the projects, kicking and screaming.
“This is my home,” Duncan said. “Before they tore down our hospital, I was born in that hospital.”