Although Hurricane Katrina occurred more than four years ago, it continues to affect the lives of the many left in its devastating wake. A number of these still struggling families and individuals call Biloxi, Mississippi home. Because of a lack of resources and opportunity, these people face a myriad of difficult, complex, and heartbreaking legal situations. In May 2009, seventeen CUA law students traveled to Biloxi to serve, for one week, as one of the resources the area sought and, still, so desperately needs.
Before venturing into Biloxi, we stopped in New Orleans. While there, we spent a day at the Ozanam Inn, a “non-profit direct service agency serving the homeless and needy of greater New Orleans,” to help with a variety of tasks. Remarkably, the averaged size Inn serves 500-600 meals per day to hungry men, women and children and provides overnight shelter to approximately 100 men per night, in addition to providing various counseling and job services.
Although a well executed program, the Inn needed some extra hands to help maintain its facilities. Our work with this institution involved painting the foyer hallway and doors as well as the entrance to the Inn. We also cleaned the food storage area and assisted in the Inn’s daily meal distribution. Between brush strokes and sweeping, the employees we worked alongside regaled us with touching tales of the Inn and their work with the shelter. They also ushered us through the attic and onto the roof of the building where we were collectively blown away by the stunning New Orleans skyline.
After touching up the trim and reorganizing the pantry, we piled into vans and made the two hour trek to Biloxi. Once in the area, we had the privilege of assisting a passionate organization in the battle to afford Biloxi residents the opportunity for a healthy, safe and sheltered life. Working directly with the Mississippi Center for Justice (“MCJ”), self-defined “as a home grown, non-profit public interest law firm that pursues racial and economic justice through advocacy for systemic change,” we worked on significant projects aimed at bettering the lives of Biloxi residents.
To facilitate this work, our group was divided into three sections or “tracks,” explained below. Although generally directed at alleviating housing struggles, each took on its own nuanced focus, creating three very different, yet equally rewarding experiences. At certain points throughout the week, however, the seventeen of us came together to observe two very interesting events.
The first of these was an injunction hearing at the nearby Harrison County Courthouse. The entire group silently strolled into a small modest courtroom to observe arguments delivered by a young pro bono attorney with the MCJ. At the foundation of this argument was an issue regarding “Mississippi Cottages.” These cottages are small modular homes that many suffering from Katrina’s devastation hoped to make permanent after formaldehyde-filled trailers were finally recalled by FEMA. Zoning ordinances in the city of Waveland and some backroom politicking threatened to effectively remove these homes from the area, displacing the residents. The MCJ successfully advocated for the cottage dwellers, many of whom owned their homes, in their quest to remain in these quaint, well kempt dwellings. Although a small victory among many continuing battles, it was gratifying to observe the win that was one step closer towards ensuring safe, affordable housing for Biloxi residents.
The second of these events was a luncheon at the close of our week in Mississippi. The luncheon commemorated the 1959 wade-in, in which nine Biloxians challenged segregated beaches by treading on to an area designated as “white only.” The luncheon was filled with civil rights scholars, community activists, historians, and speakers who recounted the event. Exposure to the touching remembrance of a hugely significant event in Biloxi history was the perfect way to end our week. It reminded us of the things we had been told so often throughout our work in the area, that Biloxi is a dynamic community, alive with a rich history and a persevering spirit.
By: Tyler Ray ’11
Track one consisted of cataloging and recording of potential rental property that the housing authority of Hancock County could potentially purchase and utilize as public housing to allow those still displaced by Katrina an ability to return to the Biloxi area and live in affordable public housing. This was the adventurous track that involved exploration all over the surrounding areas of Biloxi.
As a group we were given a list of potential properties available and had to research their location and travel to the house and catalogue the quality of the house from excellent condition to poor condition. We did this by taking pictures of each house and compiling the picture with the MLS listing for the house as well as our description of the house and creating a spread sheet of all the houses that were catalogued. Our work was aided by the help of MCJ attorney Reilly Morse and Jamie Miller who worked with the Mississippi Development Authority.
Along our way we experienced much excitement from a run in with a local Mississippian who was not pleased that his driveway was being used as a turnaround for our van. We also experienced many dead ends and missed turns, with one that resulted in an off road trip down a dirt road next to a creek. Our trip concluded with a stop at Brett Favre’s childhood home where one student got his picture taken next to the mailbox. Overall it was a great trip filled with lots of fun but also lots of progress towards getting those still displaced from Katrina into affordable and decent public housing.
Along with track three, we also aided a senior attorney with the Center for Justice with his preparation for his testimony before Congress on the state of the Gulf Coast redevelopment post-Katrina in which CUA law school is credited in the congressional testimony as helping to gather information for the testimony.
By: Nicole Picard ’11
Track two worked directly with the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center. This non-profit organization aids the residents of five gulf coast counties in the effort to secure fair and affordable housing. It dedicates its work to “eliminating housing discrimination and furthering equal housing opportunities through education, outreach, advocacy, and enforcement of fair housing laws.”
The four students, including myself, assigned to this organization were charged with a variety of projects. First among them was the creation of a brochure for area residents concerning accommodations and modifications available to tenants with disabilities under the Federal Fair Housing Act. A seemingly simple task, this project proved a challenge. However, despite language issues and a slight technological hiccup, we produced an attractive, detailed and straightforward pamphlet outlining the rights afforded these individuals. In accord with this, the students drafted forms and explanatory letters for medical physicians. These documents are intended to prompt doctors and other medical professionals to provide detailed patient information that is relevant to the patient’s quest for accommodations due to disabilities. Without such information, tenants may be denied necessary housing augmentations due them by law.
Additionally, we conducted legal research into a pressing eminent domain issue, prevalent throughout Mississippi, which specifically threatened the homes and coastline of Gulf Coast residents. We also created fliers detailing voting rights and benefits with the idea that an educated and active citizenry will have an effective voice. This voice, in turn, can help effectuate change and the programs necessary for securing affordable and fair housing.
Most poignantly for the students, however, was a project that involved surveying the area. Clipboards in hand, the students walked the streets of Gulfport talking with residents about their impressions of housing discrimination. Tales of misplaced families, images of eviction and feelings of community were abundant. We were collectively astounded, touched, heartbroken and impressed by the people we met and the neighborhood we encountered for an afternoon.
By: Katie Gamelin ’10
Four students were assigned to work on Track III, alongside MCJ attorney Reilly Morse, a local resident and activist who was personally affected by the storms. Our project involved shadowing Mr. Morse the entire week and began with determining the actual need for affordable housing in preparation for MCJ’s litigation. Specifically, our team assisted with discovery requests by drafting correspondence to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. FOIA requests were also prepared in the hopes of inspecting documents that contained valuable data on the number of public housing vouchers being accepted by landlords in the Gulf Coast region. However, when our applications went unanswered or were delayed, Mr. Morse taught us a valuable lesson in the art of real-life “lawyering:” that even the best-laid legal plans can go awry, and when that happens, you quickly move to plan B.
The backup plan for Track III participants turned out to be another rewarding experience. This project involved assisting a well-known local activist in organizing his non-profit advocacy efforts on behalf of Gulf Coast residents. These vital endeavors include the “KatrinaRitaVille Express” (http://krvexpress.org/) and a non-profit called “Turkey Creek Community Initiative” (http://www.turkey-creek.org/). Both organizations share a common theme: to preserve the cultural heritage of the Mississippi coast while advancing the ethical and environmentally-sound restoration of what was lost to hurricanes and urban-development.
In the end, no matter what project presented itself to Track III, perhaps the most valuable lesson learned was that passion and dedication are essential to the work of a pro bono attorney. Our daily interactions with Mr. Morse taught us that passion absolutely belongs in the practice of law and reminded us also of the sacredness of home. And while law school can often isolate students from the realities of practicing law, our trip to Biloxi personally reminded me why I chose this vocation: to be a small part of justice for those who need it most but lack the resources to claim it on their own.
Although these tracks were each different and may have only nominally contributed to alleviating the area’s struggles, together they made a small ripple in the sea of housing issues facing Biloxi residents. Regardless, despite our service, we students gained more from the projects we performed, and the passionate attorneys and residents with whom we worked, than they gained from us.