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Residents want to be part of redevelopment

Date: 6/22/2011

June 22, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — A coalition of activists and residents met in Court Square on June 20 to ask for inclusion in any discussions on how neighborhoods affected by the tornado in Springfield are redeveloped.

"Nothing about us without us" was the phrase repeated throughout the rally that drew about 50 people.

The rally was sponsored by Arise for Social Justice and Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude.

According to the city's Office of Housing, 500 rental units were destroyed by the tornado, primarily in the South End and the Maple High Six Corners neighborhoods. Gov. Deval Patrick was scheduled to host a meeting on the redevelopment of the city at the Basketball Hall of Fame on June 21 and Lara Shepard-Blue of Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude asserted there are already developers looking at properties.

Michaelann Bewsee of Arise noted as an example the townhouses on Hickory Street in the Old Hill neighborhood that were destroyed. While she said the townhouses were examples of good housing, she explained the tornado has given people the chance to think again and "do it right." Bewsee added that developers should consider adding solar panels to homes and work more community garden space into plans.

Bewsee also called for a rent freeze in the city to help people recover from the tornado. She believes the City Council could legislate such a freeze, which Bewsee said could be for six months. Acknowledging there are responsible landlords in the city, she said any cost of living expense, such as increases in water and sewer rates or taxes, could be passed along to tenants during the freeze.

Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced an automatic 90-day foreclosure moratorium and forbearance on FHA-backed mortgages for those impacted by the tornado. Those who spoke at the rally would like to see the moratorium extended to all lending institutions and all homes in the city.

HUD announced on June 20 the launch of the Emergency Homeowners' Loan Program (EHLP), to help homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure in Massachusetts. Under the program, eligible homeowners can qualify for an interest free loan, which pays a portion of their monthly mortgage for up to two years, or up to $50,000, whichever comes first. More information can be found at or by calling toll free at 855-FIND-EHLP (346-3345).

Although Shepard-Blue praised the reaction of local, state and federal officials to the tornado, she said there is a crisis at the emergency shelter at the MassMutual Center. Shepard-Blue charged there have been instances of racism at the shelter and that MassMutual Center management is trying to move victims out of the building as quickly as possible because the shelter has caused the organization to lose money. She has been collecting the testimony of people living in the shelter.

She said that many evacuees are "living in fear" and are subjected to "daily humiliation." Some are unnerved by the guns carried by members of the National Guard and police officers at the facility.

One testimony she released to Reminder Publications is from Irene Malave, who is in the shelter with her husband and three children. The family had been living at 285 Central St., which has been demolished.

Malave said, "We were all home, when it started getting dark. My son yelled for me to close the window. I did, and all the windows broke suddenly, and trees crashed into my daughter's room and the kitchen. I grabbed my 1 year-old from his playpen and we all huddled in the corner. When it was over, we heard our neighbors yelling at us to get out of the building. We all came out, and as we left the building, bricks were falling down. I was afraid to leave because I had my son in my arms.

"Out in the street, the police and ambulances told us all that we had to walk to [the] MassMutual Center. Then a few days later, they moved us to Greenleaf, then Central, and now back to MassMutual. Some of the Red Cross volunteers have been very nice, but it's like a penitentiary in here. You can't express your concerns or complaints. There is no respect for the evacuees. The other day, my husband overheard one of the Red Cross staff say, when he looked at us, 'Are we gonna need body armor here?' They make arbitrary rules, try to keep us from taking showers, they make nasty comments about us. There are two very good Red Cross people, one is Robin, who had to leave, and the other is Vicky."

Shepard-Blue said the manager of the shelter has been told of the complaints and said the American Red Cross has a "zero tolerance" policy toward racism.

Shepard-Blue said there are about 160 people still at the shelter. She added there should be a way to track the people who leave to insure they are going because of having found adequate housing and not for other reasons.

Lisa Michaud, a spokesperson the American Red Cross who was at the rally, said Shepard-Blue's statements about problems at the shelter were the first time she had heard of any substantial complaints. She said there has been a meeting with all of the shelter staff and occupants concerning questions and concerns.

Michaud said that with any diverse population there would be people who don't respond well to rules. For instance, the shelter has a curfew of 10 p.m., she explained, and parents must watch their children. There are three meals served every day and there are times for showers. She added that some people have objected to the strictness of those schedules, but they are necessary.

She added that one day when showers at the shelter were not available, the evacuees were brought to the Springfield YMCA in order to bathe.

Michaud also challenged Shepard-Blue's statements about the management of the MassMutual Center whom she described as "nothing but stellar in generosity." She said the staff at the center have been paid overtime for their efforts and the center has kept the shelter area clean at all times.

Michaud asked the public to remember that 96 percent of the Red Cross staff is volunteers "people of the heart" who have worked 12 hours a day since June 1.

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