RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The town of Cairo, Ill., at the tip of the Mississippi Delta used to be a thriving river port and manufacturing hub. As we've reported recently, it is one of the fastest depopulating towns in rural America. Now some more tough news for the town. It's two large public housing projects are being shut down. And that is leading to questions about whether Cairo can or even should survive. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.
MONTE ELLIS: What they doing to us, G?
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Monte Ellis and his little sister Ashay's whole lives are being uprooted.
ELLIS: Yeah. They're just forcing us out, man, pretty much.
ASHAY: They're just saying get out.
SIEGLER: Ashay's 11. Her brother Monte, 18. They're standing by what passes for a playground in the battered McBride housing projects. For years, families like theirs complained of squalor conditions here - leaky ceilings, mold, rats.
ELLIS: A lot of broken promises.
SIEGLER: Last year when the federal housing agency HUD took over the scandal-ridden local housing authority, people hoped things would turn around. Instead, a few weeks ago, the dreaded news - the projects were deemed uninhabitable and will be demolished within months. HUD says it doesn't have the money to bring these up to code. Instead, it's offering relocation assistance and housing vouchers for new places. But where? Cairo is rural and isolated. A lot of the other properties in town are abandoned or condemned. The anger here is palpable.
ASHAY: And it's not all about money. It's about us, too. So when we on the streets and stuff, ya'll just going to be riding around looking at us like we stupid. No, ya'll did that to us.
SIEGLER: How do you just pick up and move if there's nowhere to go? The nearest cities of size in Kentucky are an hour away, and people's families, their support networks are here.
ELLIS: You know, I go to Cairo High School. It's like I want to see Cairo High School get big and succeed. And can't do that if there's no community.
SIEGLER: Cairo and its schools were already on life support. If everyone from the projects leaves town, the district's enrollment would drop another 40 percent. Would the town still be viable without its school?
MARY BETH GOFF: Can I stay with you for 15 minutes...
SIEGLER: There are real fears of a domino effect over at the Cairo School District, which is also the town's largest employer. Sixth grade teacher Mary Beth Goff got so frustrated that she had her students write letters to HUD Secretary Ben Carson pleading with him to reconsider.
GOFF: I get what Ben Carson says. He says, you know, public housing should be a springboard, not a hammock. I've read that statement. In a sense, that's great, but these are kids.
SIEGLER: In a letter back, the secretary promised to help the families find a better home. Goff will hold them to that. This housing crisis is just the latest disruption for her students.
GOFF: Our kids are living in conditions that they should not have to live in, and I don't think anybody disagrees with that. So then the question is do you make it better or do you abandon them?
JERRY BROWN: Nothing is simple with Cairo because when you go there and you look at the units, it literally tugs at your heart.
SIEGLER: This is Jerry Brown a deputy secretary at HUD. He says the unfortunate reality is that HUD is no longer in the housing construction business. It relies on private developers. And attracting them to an isolated place like Cairo is tough. There hasn't been a new private home built in this town for 50 years. That's 50 years.
BROWN: We're going to do everything we can to allow everyone that can find affordable housing in that community to remain there.
SIEGLER: And he's right. There is stuff happening. Illinois' governors sent teams down to assess abandoned properties and see if expedited grant money could turn them into possible Section 8 rentals. Cairo's mayor Tyrone Coleman is holding landlord fares doing whatever he can.
TYRONE COLEMAN: I'll never give in to the point that Cairo is finished - never. If I'd thought that, I'd been gone myself, you know? But there's enough of us here to keep life here.
SIEGLER: But just how far do you go to keep people in a town where opportunities are few? Like a lot of rural America, Cairo was built for things - river barges, manufacturing, that aren't as relevant today. The mayor shakes his head at this, though. He says the town is close to getting a grocery store back and hopefully a new port which will attract investment and jobs.
COLEMAN: Cairo - it's used to having to overcome, you know. That's just the part of our character, our nature.
SIEGLER: People's character, their identity is wrapped up tightly in Cairo. So even if it was easy to pick up and move to a new city, many people probably wouldn't.
MELVIN DUNCAN: They literally going to have to put me out. I will do what I can to stay.
SIEGLER: Back of the projects one morning, I meet Melvin Duncan who is on break from his handyman job over at the school. He's got spindly long dreadlocks, smoker's laugh and jokes a lot. Lately, he's taken on a sort of neighborhood activist role.
DUNCAN: I mean, this property right here is empty. That's an old nursing home - could've...
SIEGLER: He's pointing to some places that could be refurbished so people could stay. Duncan says he has a possible lead on a place for his family about three-hours drive from here, but it's an absolute last resort.
DUNCAN: Like I said, I was born here. I've been here most of my life. I have lived a couple of other places, but this is home. Who wants their home destroyed?
SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Cairo, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.