Pastors Urge Attention To Housing Needs

Coast ministers are speaking out against plans to use federal housing money to pay for improvements at the Port of Gulfport.

Some 20 religious leaders held a news conference Wednesday, demanding some accountability from the governor.

They describe their battle as a real "David vs. Goliath." The pastors say it would be a "grave injustice" to take money earmarked for post-Katrina housing needs, and use it instead for an economic development project at the port.

"What about the homelessness? It's on the rise in our region. Many pastors every day, every week have people coming to our churches," said Pastor Jason Johnson, speaking in front of a group of religious leaders gathered in downtown Biloxi.

The pastors and their supporters say immediate housing needs should take precedence over long term economic development.

"Our objective today is to ensure that the $600 million promised for housing reconstruction be used for its intended purposes," said Pastor Johnson.

The Mississippi Development Authority wants to divert $600 million of money that funds the home owner assistance grants, and instead use that money to improve the Port of Gulfport.

"It would be a grave injustice to utilize money that was promised for housing, when 17,000 gulf coast families are still living in FEMA trailers with no place to go," said Pastor Darrell Taylor.

The pastors emphasized they're not opposed to port improvements, only to the shifting of housing funds to pay for it.

"What about the people who live in Gulfport? You're going to have economic development passing through the port and people are still going to be homeless. And we say that's not right. And we're not just going to sit here and say 'Go Governor, Go Governor'" said Pastor Larry Hawkins from Pascagoula.

Rev. Hawkins took issue with the success claimed by the Mississippi Homeowner Assistance Grants program.

He said the program has been "flawed from the start."

"The biggest misconception about that program is that the money is getting to the people, when it's not getting to the people. He'll fly down and the President will fly down and they pick out one Habitat for Humanity house, one home owner and we've got 500 more home owners who still haven't gotten a dime," said Pastor Hawkins.

The news conference was held outside the Saenger Theater in Biloxi because that's where the governor will be debating his democratic opponent Thursday night.

The ministers say the ball is now in the governor's court and they're anxious to hear his response to their concerns.

"We're not just going to sit here and roll over and play dead and watch you allocate money to help individuals and then take that money and expand the Port of Gulfport," said Rev. Hawkins.

WLOX News tried to get a comment from Governor Haley Barbour in response to this story. We were directed instead to the governor's campaign office.

Campaign spokesman Brian Perry issued a statement on behalf of the Barbour for Governor camp.

"Governor Barbour's Katrina recovery strategy has set aside nearly $3 billion for gulf coast housing; which is the equivalent of more than half the state's budget. Nobody that's eligible for housing assistance will be turned down."

The statement goes on to say, "The $600 million for the port will build it back bigger and better than before and will create more and better jobs for the Gulf Coast. Those funds have always been designated for the port; they are not being diverted from the billions of dollars in housing programs."

"The Eaves Campaign and their surrogates have bad information.  No housing funds are being diverted. With Governor Barbour's leadership, Mississippi has been able to secure the funds necessary to fully address low to moderate income housing, as well as rebuild critical infrastructure. Both are being accomplished."

As for the statement about the diversion of funds, the Mississippi Development Authority's own news release on September 7th says the money is being diverted from the housing grant program to the port.

It says, "MDA is proposing to redirect $600 million of the $2.25 billion allocated for the Homeowner Assistance Program Phase I grants to the Port of Gulfport Restoration Program.