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The Forgotten People Living in Tents 7 Months After Hurricane Michael

60% of the housing stock around Panama City, Florida was damaged or destroyed in Hurricane Michael. It may never be rebuilt.

by Emma Ockerman
May 10 2019, 4:03pm

SPRINGFIELD, Florida — Mary Adams ambled around inside her bright, multicolored tent, rearranging the few items that remind her that this strange place is supposed to be home now. In addition to a sunken chaise lounge, there’s a tin of markers, some puffy paint, three stuffed animals, and a face mask, which she doesn’t have much use for anymore.

For months, the 42-year-old has had to bathe under a garden hose or inside a rat-infested, dilapidated mobile home a few steps away. The mobile home was crushed by multiple trees felled by Hurricane Michael, which tore through this section of the Florida Panhandle last October. Yet two people still live in it.

The hurricane, the strongest ever recorded on the Panhandle, killed 25 people and left behind $661 million worth of damages in sprawling Bay County, which is divided by a bridge that splits the wealthier Panama City Beach from the county’s desolate, forested acreage and smaller towns like Springfield.

The hurricane damaged or destroyed nearly 60% of the housing stock of Bay County, and nearly seven months later, a great many of the 20,000 people displaced by the storm are still living in campers, condemned homes, or outside in the yards of good Samaritans. The shortage of housing is being exacerbated by a concurrent housing boom, as opportunistic buyers race to scoop up a limited amount of salvageable land to rebuild, threatening to permanently displace the low-income residents of the county.

Average rents have gone up nearly 14% since October to an average of $1,463 in Bay County, according to Zillow, compared to a nationwide increase of about 2.5% — if you can find a place to rent at all.

“That’s why people are still living in tents, because they can’t afford the rent. It’s horrible, compared to what it used to be,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s right that there’s only a few houses left, and they’re charging more when you’ve lost everything you own.”

Bay County has no current count of its homeless population, but dozens are still living in semi-permanent tent communities, like Adams has been forced into. For months, she and her 21-year-old son, Demarcus, have lived with seven other people in a single driveway amid a tangle of blue tarps, cracked trees, and collapsed homes, along with signs for roof fixing, mold eradication, and property-buying services.

“That’s why people are still living in tents, because they can’t afford the rent”

Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki concedes there’s a problem but says rental prices in the area should stabilize when “the inventory comes back online.” For now, city officials are looking at a run-up in housing prices similar to the bubble seen before the Great Recession in 2008, he said.

“You can morally think about it, but from a legal standpoint, it all boils down to you’ve got 10 people trying to buy the same thing,” Brudnicki said. “It’s supply and demand.”

Mark McQueen, Panama City’s manager, said affordable housing is the No. 1 issue the area’s focusing on, noting “here we are six months post-storm, and we have a number of citizens that are suffering.”

But he and Michael Johnson, the city’s director for community development, said the tent cities that have cropped up around Bay County are partly due to an influx of contractors looking for recovery-related labor.

For now, tens of thousands of Panhandle residents are facing another hurricane season either homeless or in severely damaged housing, with no obvious end in sight.

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A collapsed trailer property in Springfield, Fla. on May 2, 2019. The property is now home to nine people after Hurricane Michael swept the Panhandle in October. People live between tents, a motor home, and a half-damaged trailer, still crushed by trees and now rat-infested. (Photo: Emma Ockerman/VICE News)

Janelle Crosby, 55, owns the property that Adams pitched her tent on. The crushed mobile home is hers, but she doesn’t have homeowners insurance and can’t afford to repair it on her own. Instead, she and her husband are living in a motorhome donated by a local preacher who found out she had Stage 3 breast cancer.

“We keep busy trying to survive.” Crosby said. “If another storm comes in, that’ll be it for us. If I could financially, I’d leave.”

There are four tents on the property, including two that Adams and her son occupy. Two more people, who’d been renting her mobile home for $450 a month, are still living in the half that’s habitable, at no cost.

Another homeless woman and a 68-year-old disabled man also live in tents on the property.

Though victims have gotten some help from the federal government, it’s been no match for the rising rents. In the months after the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided to Bay County 810 travel trailers, direct lease properties, and mobile homes. Statewide, FEMA doled out assistance to 21,038 people so they could find temporary housing.

The agency, which is primarily focused on immediate, short-term disaster needs, gave out more than $142 million in individual assistance grants across the state of Florida to cover temporary hotel stays, rentals and repairs. (The federal government has allocated more than $1.1 billion to the Panhandle post-hurricane, overall.)

This week, Florida's state legislature secured an additional $115 million to specifically address the housing shortage in Bay County through a state appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, Congress has been deadlocked over a $17 billion disaster-aid bill to help Florida, Georgia, flooded states in the Midwest, and fire-ravaged California. But the bill has been held up by partisan rancor over how much money to send to Puerto Rico.

President Donald Trump, speaking in Panama City Beach during a campaign rally Wednesday night, praised the work the federal government has done so far to rebuild Bay County. “Panama City Beach is open for business, as beautiful as ever,” he said, before slamming the aid Democrats want to give to Puerto Rico. “We’ve already given you billions of dollars, and there is a lot more coming.”

For Adams, the aid so far has amounted to $1,734 in FEMA assistance after the storm but she was unable to find local replacement housing on that amount of money.

“Where the frick am I going to go with two kids on $1,700 — two kids and no job and no car? Where are you going to move into and pay deposits, light and water for $1,700? You’re not,” Adams said.

Amid the obvious homelessness and destruction on the Panhandle, the residential rental market is booming.

A one-bedroom, one-bath apartment near Tyndall Air Force Base in Bay County that listed for $795 a month before the storm, for example, was re-listed in February at $1,195 a month, according to Zillow. A larger four-bedroom home near the beach listed for $1,400 a month last May but ratcheted up to $3,000 by the time it was back on the market in February.

A sunny-yellow, four-bedroom home near the water in East Bay was recently tagged: “HOUSE SURVIVED THE HURRICANE!” A year ago, it was renting for $3,100 a month. Now it’s going for $6,000.

“Business is very good, but it’s a lot of struggling to find a house that fits the price range of the customer,” said John Shook, a local real estate broker with Exit Sands Realty. “The people that are shut of the market are the people that are trying to find the very cheap houses.”

Shook noted that more reasonably priced units are rented almost instantly, and there’s no shortage of willing buyers. “If it’s available, and rentable, it’s being rented,” he said.

In rental-dense areas, developers tend to buy up newly cheap property and build new units that old tenants can’t afford, said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. That’s what forced low-income people out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and stoked rapid gentrification there, he added.

“To pretend we have a free market in this country is absurd. Most often the so-called free market is one that’s balanced in favor of people who have means to be able to access it,” Tars said. “Every community kind of assumes if we only build high-income housing, we’ll only have high-income people.”

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Shelly Summers, 50, talks in the dining room of her home in Bayou George, Florida, on May 1. Since Hurricane Michael, she’s invited displaced people to pitch tents in her backyard. (Photo: Roberto Ferdman/VICE News)

In the area across the bridge from the more affluent Panama City Beach, outdoor living has become the norm for some people. In nearby Bayou George, Florida, for example, 50-year-old Shelly Summers said she had at least 26 people living on her five-acre property as of May 1, and she expected more would come because FEMA’s short-term hotel vouchers recently ran out on 250 hurricane-surviving households.

Sitting on her back porch last week, she slid on her glasses when her phone dinged with a message. “Probably somebody going to be needing to come here,” Summers said.

By that, she meant the person might pull up later with whatever they had left after Hurricane Michael to pitch a tent in her backyard.

She and her husband make the new backyard tenants abide by a slim set of rules: No shoes in the house, no drugs, no drinking, no drama. But she offers up a home-cooked meal each night in return for help feeding her nearly 100 pet rabbits and for someone to talk to.

“Rent has doubled, if not tripled, and in some places more than that,” Summers, known as “Miss Shelly” to her tenants, said. “This is why new people are still coming in. If you’re going to raise the rent, you better raise the wages.”

Minimum wage in Florida is $8.46 an hour; per-capita annual wages in Bay County are about $27,000. Summers said many of her tent-dwellers are either working or receiving disability payments.

Adam Currington, 31, and girlfriend Chelsey Ecko, 29, came to Summers’ place three weeks ago after bouncing from hotel to hotel with help from FEMA, since their landlord kicked them out after the storm and moved higher-paying renters in. FEMA also gave them $2,000 and “expected us to go get a place on that,” Currington said.

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Chelsey Ecko, 29, and boyfriend Adam Currington, 31, stand outside the tent they've been sleeping in for three weeks in Bayou George, Fla. on May 1. Currington said their landlord kicked them out of their mobile home after Hurricane Michael devastated Bay County in October 2018. (Photo: Roberto Ferdman/VICE News)

Another backyard-dweller, Tracey Hamilton, cleans condos and businesses for work and also came to Summers’ property three weeks ago. The 51-year-old survivor of domestic abuse had been sleeping under the partial roof of a condemned trailer, wrecked by the storm.

She’s looked at homes that were $800 a month before the storm and are now going for $1,600. She tried to compromise and buy an RV for $500, but found she’d have to pay nearly $700 a month to rent a space on an RV lot. She didn’t want her son staying in the damaged trailer, so she relinquished custody of him after the storm. He lives with her mother now.

“He needs a stable life, and right now I can’t give him that,” Hamilton said. She’s not sure when she’ll be able to move into an affordable studio apartment.

Amber Polenz, a 30-year-old Panama City mom of a child with cerebral palsy, is trying to make a home out of a small RV in a parking lot with several other vehicles like hers, plus a smattering of tents. She’ll be there until her family can save up for a downpayment on a new home.

At first, she was looking at studio apartments that were more than $1,000 a month, which she said wasn’t tenable. But she needed something to keep her safe after her trailer home was destroyed. That’s how she wound up in the parking lot.

“Whenever you ask for help here, you do not get it. You have to fight for it,” Polenz said. She was previously applying for rental assistance and a FEMA trailer but was denied because the agency said her trailer was still livable. “We had trees coming through the roof. My son’s floor was literally split in half, buckled.”

Prior to Hurricane Michael, Adams was already teetering on the edge of poverty. Her sole sources of income were $750 in Social Security benefits her son Demarcus receives each month for a cognitive disability, and money from watching other people’s kids.

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Children staying on Shelly Summers’ property after Hurricane Michael destroyed their homes in October play on her five-acre property before dinner on May 1. (Photo: Roberto Ferdman/VICE News)

Adams suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes it difficult for her to breathe and work on her feet. To complicate matters even further, she was staying with another woman in the projects, and they both separately applied for FEMA assistance based on the same property damages.

Adams initially took the money FEMA gave her and moved to Dothan, Alabama, about 90 minutes away — the only place where she could find an apartment cheap enough to afford a security deposit and first month’s rent.

Unable to find a job within the first month and make the $900-a-month rent again, Adams was evicted and soon found herself at Crosby’s property with a tent. Adams lost her mother’s ashes in the storm and said Crosby feels like the mom she needs right now.

She received a letter from FEMA last Thursday saying the agency’s records indicated she “and another member of your household received assistance for the same disaster losses,” which is known as an out-of-line “duplication of benefits.”

She might now owe FEMA the same $1,734 that couldn’t get her back on her feet.

Rather matter-of-factly, Adams added that she feels like she might die in the next few years, and that Crosby needs the money more. She put the FEMA letter on the table next to the chaise lounge in her tent, to deal with later.

“She’s the one who needs the house,” Adams said. “Two years — I don’t know if I’ll make it for two years. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.”

Cover: Mary Adams, 42, laughs outside her tent in Springfield, Fla. on May 2. She lives in the driveway of her friend, along with eight others who sleep in tents, an RV or a half-destroyed mobile home. (Photo: Emma Ockerman/VICE News)

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.