Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is pledging to do all he can to help displaced residents of two derelict public housing projects in the small, southern Illinois river town of Cairo.
The secretary paid a visit Tuesday to the town, which is on life support.
"There is a big problem here," Carson said at a hastily organized forum in the high school gym. "We have to do everything that we have the ability to do to fix it."
Earlier this year, Carson's department announced it would close rather than repair the Elmwood and McBride housing projects. Residents there have long complained of squalor living conditions following years of alleged mismanagement by the scandal-ridden Alexander County Housing Authority.
At the forum Tuesday, residents of the projects like Steven Tarver pleaded for help from the secretary, a former neurosurgeon and onetime Republican presidential candidate who has had no government experience before his current position.
"When you were doing your operations, just like they called you and said, 'Dr. Carson, come, this heart needs to be repumped,' " Tarver said. "Our heart needs to be repumped."
Carson said he was in town to offer assurances that HUD will help everyone who wants to stay in Cairo to be able to do so. The agency has not given families a hard move-out date. But HUD has said it is no longer in the home construction business.
In an isolated town like Cairo, it is unclear where folks will go once the projects are demolished. Of the estimated 400 people affected, only 10 families have thus far found new housing, according to HUD.
The closure of the projects, where many of the remaining residents of Cairo live, has drawn national attention. The predominately African-American, rural town used to be a thriving port at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But decades of corruption, economic upheaval and racial tension led it to become one of the fastest depopulating communities in the nation.
Today, Cairo's struggles raise tough questions about what can or should be done to save small towns.
"All we need is time," said Phillip Matthews, a pastor and local activist.
Community leaders like Matthews said the town is close to inking a deal with a private developer to build more public housing. There has not been a new home built in Cairo in 50 years.
Matthews said he felt encouraged for the first time in years after a private meeting Tuesday with Carson.
"He listened, and he asked questions," Matthews said. "You're not going to get anything done if a person comes to a meeting with a closed mind."
Matthews said he was also encouraged by the secretary's vision of rebuilding the economy in small towns like Cairo. Town leaders are working with the state to establish a new port that could spur growth.
None of this is of much solace to residents like Melvin Duncan who are in crisis right now.
"I think it's a political thing, the reason why he's coming down here," Duncan said. "He already sent a letter saying it's unfortunate, but we can't help you."
Duncan, 38, has lived in the sprawling McBride projects on Cairo's south side for almost his whole life. He said he may have some leads on housing in Kentucky. But his job and his family are in Cairo.
Duncan said he will be the last to leave and that he would have to be dragged out of the projects.
"This is my home," Duncan says. "Before they tore down our hospital, I was born in that hospital."