October 30, 2006
People are trying to take your community while you are sleeping.--Sharon Hanshaw Sharon Hanshaw was out of town when Hurricane Katrina hit her lifelong home of Biloxi, Mississippi. She returned to face the total destruction of East Biloxi. She had lost both her home and the beauty salon she owned for 21 years. Hanshaw retrieved one antique table and photographs. The photos took 16 hours to clean, but she wanted them, "to remember that she had a life." After the first storm, Hanshaw ended up in Houston with her sister. Then when Rita hit, they were on the road for 23 hours, trying to leave town. Hanshaw soon returned to the Gulf Coast where she spent five months moving between her children's homes until she received a FEMA trailer. Women of all ages, ranging from 18 to 82, and many nationalities began meeting nearby to talk about survival after the storm and what was happening to the community. Her car gone, Hanshaw hitchhiked to the meetings. She found that just talking made a difference for everyone, saying, "The women were broken down, they lost family members. The meetings helped people understand that everyone was going through the same thing." Launching Coastal Women for Change: giving a voice to East Biloxi women At the same time that the women needed to tell their stories to get beyond their personal experiences, Hanshaw became increasingly concerned as she watched developers and casino owners dominate Biloxi's recovery planning. "We have no houses, but we have casinos," Hanshaw observes. There were no organized community groups in Biloxi. Hanshaw helped start Coastal Women for Change (CWC) in January 2006 to give women a voice for their concerns about the direction and future of their community. Initially, Hanshaw volunteered to be the secretary. Seeing her relentless spirit and tireless initiative, they asked her to serve as the executive director. In May, 2006 Hanshaw began her second career. Not far from her office is a street named after her father, a revered minister who was active in the civil rights movement. Perhaps she is now following in his footsteps. Hanshaw says, "It became obvious that the poor people were the only group that was not organized and our needs were so great but we did not have a voice." The group's first event was a community forum with the mayor, city council, and other elected officials. With the help of professional facilitators, 200 people faced the mayor and asked him to explain what he was doing about their community's needs. "Many of us felt we had no input in the process. We realized that after giving our ideas related to the recovery of East Biloxi, our ideas were heard and acted upon if we had an organized effort," explains Hanshaw. Next, CWC members asked for seats on the Mayor's planning commission. They were given five seats, on the subcommittees for finance, education, transportation, land use, and affordable housing. In July, Coastal Women for Change partnered with the NAACP to hold a Women of Color forum, "Assuming Leadership in the Aftermath of Katrina," identifying issues for a legislative housing agenda. CWC then collected 950 signatures on a fair housing petition and presented them to elected officials. When Moore Community House asked CWC to conduct a childcare needs-assessment survey in East Biloxi that was required to renew Moore House's license, CWC found that it was an opportunity to learn more about the community's needs in general. In their door-to-door surveys, Coastal Women for Change found women desperate for childcare, but also discovered incidences of robbery and abuse of elders living alone in trailers, now fearful to come to the door. Hanshaw alerted the police to increase patrols and surveillance, and created Emergency Preparedness Kits for seniors to record their emergency contact information, evacuation options, and prescriptions. Life post-Katrina: The challenges one year later One year after the storm Hanshaw says, "We may have to march to take our town back." Her message to the "decision makers" is, "Don't leave us out; let us be involved. Don't act like we don't exist." She is keenly aware that, "We are on casino row—we're in the way." More and more lots are being bulldozed, some without people having a chance to go through their homes to try to find some remnant of their lives. Many people are still away and can't return. The city is silent and vacant. The people who have returned to Biloxi are losing significant amounts of money to price gouging and fraud. Contractors are over-charging by twenty and thirty thousand dollars. Rents have doubled, "which makes you take a roommate from hell or take husbands back that you don't want," Hanshaw explains. There is no child care; mothers are nervously leaving their children with people they barely know. There have been 48 funerals since Katrina and the people dying are getting younger and younger. Hanshaw believes that it is partly due to the environment, that toxins are in the water, soil and trailers. People are depressed and desperate and crime is increasing. Hanshaw sees women becoming numb and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. She does not judge them, but knows, "we can't be too busy for each other," so she keeps checking in on people. Hanshaw is a role model. She says, "I want the women to know that they all can make it—there's no choice, I must keep moving. I realize there will be obstacles and hardships." One of Hanshaw's biggest challenges is voiced repeatedly by people throughout the Gulf Coast region: People wondering why, a year later, she still isn't "over it." Her response is simple: "Just change spots, stay in my trailer for a night." On the difficulties of being seen and heard as a black woman "As black women we're catching it triple. They look over you and ignore you," says Hanshaw as she relates her recent visit to the bank. "They took several people ahead of me in line and treated me as though I was invisible. Finally a teller came over and intervened." Hanshaw's experience of, "give it to the white girl first," has been the same in lines for food, FEMA trailers, and even State Farm Insurance. Hanshaw concludes, "It is 2006 and we're still in slavery." Hanshaw finds that it is the women who are strong and dealing with life post Katrina. She notices that how many men couldn't deal with it and left. "If we stop we will disintegrate—we have to keep moving—it is worse than being homeless. We're not saying take care of us, just give us a boost," Hanshaw comments. She has found that many of the young people who have come down to help aren't bound by the color line in the same way. It is them, along with her own children, the women around her and her faith that motivates Hanshaw. "I know it is going to make a difference, if you believe, and you put God in there—we are going to succeed." Re-creating home and community Hanshaw describes herself as "homeless and homelesser." She once created her sense of home by cooking and feeding people. Every Sunday was a family dinner, and it was always in her home. Now she has it at her daughter's house to try to re-create home. She longs for her own place to cook, her own gas stove top, explaining, "I made candy, homemade pralines. I sold them. It was the treat I gave people." It is hurricane season again, she is nervous about having her community once again scattered and once again without a plan. But this year she is taking charge. CWC has organized people to call the city and demand locations for the transit buses to evacuate people, as well as assurance that the citizens of East Biloxi will be part of any evacuation plan. Priorities for programs and policies CWC's survey tells them people want to come home, but to make this a reality their needs must first be met. Housing: There is a great need for funds for rent, and for supplies such as paint and wood. CWC has created a "Mini-Grant Home Improvement" project to increase the ability of 10 low-income families to access a $500 grant for home improvement repairs. Advocacy is also needed around The Living Cities plan that aims to move public housing projects to the corners of the city. CWC will be at town meetings with Living Cities. Child care: The wait list is currently six months to a year to secure child care (1 year olds and older, only). Elderly support: CWC created a database and called seniors to find them, then created elderly preparedness kits for 75 seniors. CWC is now taking oral histories from the seniors in order to document the history of the community. Mental health: One of CWC greatest concerns, they have sought gift cards for comforts like manicures and massages, and are seeking funding for a retreat for women to help them rejuvenate their sprits after so much trauma. Other significant challenges include the environment, insurance, transportation and jobs. The Ms. Foundation helps give Gulf Coast women a united voice Prior to Katrina there was no community-based organization that advocated for lower-income people, especially women in Biloxi. During both the relief and recovery phase, their needs were sorely neglected, first by FEMA then by city officials. It appeared that the needs of the people did not exist, only the concerns of the developers and casinos. Ms. funding helped start this organization in an effort to involve women from the East Biloxi community in the long term Hurricane Katrina Recovery Effort on the local, state and national levels. CWC does this by ensuring that the community has adequate information in a timely manner and by providing input into the decision making process.