An op­por­tu­nity gamed away

For a county in the Deep South that reaped mil­lions from casino busi­ness, poverty is still its spin of the wheel

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHICO HAR­LAN IN TU­NICA, MISS.

Her one-story house was slump­ing inch by inch, day by day, into the wet ground of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta. Rot climbed up the wooden beams and mildew crept across the ceil­ing. Soft spots spread across the damp and buck­ling ply­wood floor. Holes opened up that led straight to the soil.

Linda Fay En­gle-Harris, 60, had al­ways tried to man­age on her own, and so when she found new open­ings in the floor, she crum­pled pa­per into tight wads and jammed them into the gaps. When she awoke to find slugs ooz­ing across her liv­ing room, she fetched a dust­pan, opened the front door and gen­tly ush­ered them back into what she called “their nat­u­ral ecosys­tem.” One night, when she grew par­tic­u­larly pan­icked about the fu­ture of her home, she hand­wrote four pages in a notebook left over from her teach­ing days, try­ing to gather her thoughts.

“My big­gest fear,” she wrote, “is that our house will col­lapse.”

For two decades, ever since her county of plan­ta­tions and shot­gun shacks had struck it

rich, she’d been await­ing the pros­per­ity. Great jobs for all, she’d imag­ined. Im­proved liv­ing stan­dards. Per­haps no place in Amer­ica’s Deep South had ever re­ceived a bet­ter chance to cre­ate new eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for its peo­ple. Start­ing in the early 1990s, Tu­nica had be­come a neon-lit casino des­ti­na­tion. The county had since raked in $760 mil­lion, a for­tune for a county with 10,000 peo­ple.

But as she wor­ried about her house, En­gle-Harris — like many in Tu­nica — was be­gin­ning to sense that the great­est wind­fall in the history of the ru­ral South had failed to lift up a com­mu­nity where many African Amer­i­cans still lived in crum­bling, shack­like homes.

De­spite all the casino money, a county that ranked in the 1980s among the na­tion’s poor­est to­day had one of Mis­sis­sippi’s high­est un­em­ploy­ment rates. A county lashed 30 years ago in a CBS News “60 Min­utes” seg­ment for its “apartheid” schools still had a mostly white pri­vate academy and a public school sys­tem that was 97 per­cent black and was given a “D” grade by the state. A county that the Rev. Jesse Jack­son once de­scribed as “Amer­ica’s Ethiopia” had changed lit­tle in its poor­est neigh­bor­hoods, even as river­front casi­nos and other lav­ish de­vel­op­ment had sprouted up along the farm­land hug­ging the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Tu­nica’s strike-it-rich nar­ra­tive is a rar­ity in the Deep South. But the dis­ap­point­ing way it played out shows how fun­da­men­tal — and pos­si­bly in­tractable — the prob­lems are in an area that lags be­hind the rest of the coun­try as the poor­est re­gion with the least eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. A ma­jor study last year on up­ward mo­bil­ity, mea­sur­ing a poor child’s chances of climb­ing the eco­nomic lad­der, found that Tu­nica had less op­por­tu­nity than all but six other coun­ties in the United States — scat­tered across Alaska, South Dakota and Vir­ginia. The Deep South it­self is home to more than half of the most pun­ish­ing coun­ties.

It is a down­beat re­al­ity for a re­gion that for much of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury was clos­ing its gap with the rest of the coun­try, helped by the fed­eral war on poverty and the end of le­gal­ized seg­re­ga­tion. But dur­ing the past 15 years — and par­tic­u­larly since the Great Re­ces­sion — the catch-up has stalled. By some mea­sures, it has re­versed. Some­body born to­day in Mis­sis­sippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Ge­or­gia or South Carolina is far more likely than some­one born else­where in the United States to at­tend a poorer school, drop out be­fore high school, work a low-pay­ing job, strug­gle with debt, go to prison and die young, ac­cord­ing to na­tional health, la­bor and ed­u­ca­tion sta­tis­tics.

Hun­dreds of years of seg­re­ga­tion are now cre­at­ing a “very hard-to-break pat­tern of hu­man be­hav­ior and eco­nomic re­la­tions,” said Robert C. Lieber­man, the provost at Bal­ti­more’s Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and an au­thor­ity on race in Amer­ica.

But the trou­bles in the Deep South go well be­yond race to in­clude frayed state fi­nances, which have eroded the safety net for the poor, as well as public school un­der­fund­ing, which leaves those who can af­ford it scram­bling to pri­vate schools. And it ex­tends to a grow­ing tech­no­log­i­cal di­vide that has left sig­nif­i­cant ru­ral ar­eas with­out ac­cess to the dig­i­tal world; a rise in sin­gle par­ent­hood, which is a ma­jor in­di­ca­tor for gen­er­a­tion-to-gen­er­a­tion poverty; and the de­cline of ru­ral job op­por­tu­ni­ties in states that have long re­lied on agri­cul­ture rather than on ur­ban hubs.

What went wrong in Tu­nica is a mat­ter of per­spec­tive. For many African Amer­i­cans — and the county’s cur­rent of­fi­cials— it was a story of a largely white po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship that did not grasp the depths of poverty fac­ing many black res­i­dents and did not choose to use in an eq­ui­table way the casino rev­enue that flowed into the county. So in­stead of fund­ing skills train­ing and pro­vid­ing pro­grams for the vul­ner­a­ble, county of­fi­cials poured money into a river­front wed­ding hall, an Olympic-size in­door swimming pool and a golf course de­signed by a for­mer PGA Tour pro — all while im­ple­ment­ing a mas­sive tax cut that pri­mar­ily ben­e­fited the wealthy.

“It is a suc­cess story for those in the right so­cial cir­cle,” said En­gle-Harris, who is black, echo­ing the per­spec­tives of many African Amer­i­cans in­ter­viewed here.

To the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship that de­vel­oped the casino plans and spent that money, how­ever, the story is one of good in­ten­tions gone awry, an at­tempt to boost an in­dus­try that could po­ten­tially cre­ate jobs in a cor­ner of the coun­try that never had much of an econ­omy or hope for the fu­ture.

What­ever the in­ten­tions, the re­sults have left Tu­nica and, more specif­i­cally, some of its res­i­dents, in an eco­nom­i­cally dan­ger­ous place.

Of the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars that Tu­nica earned from its gam­bling venues be­tween 1993 and 2015, just a sliver — about 2.5 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to county records — was used on so­cial pro­grams to help the poor. In the largest of those pro­grams, the county chose a se­lec­tion of low-in­come se­nior cit­i­zens for ma­jor home ren­o­va­tions: Those liv­ing in the worst con­di­tions would get $25,000 for re­pairs; or, if the house proved too di­lap­i­dated, a new mo­bile home.

Un­til re­cently, En­gle-Harris hadn’t con­sid­ered the pro­gram. As her home fell apart, she dived into her own sav­ings — built up over years as a public school teacher — to pay for the re­pairs her­self. But then, nearly $20,000 was gone, used to pay for new floor­ing, a new roof and shin­gles, new linoleum in the bath­room. En­gle-Harris had $1,400 left in the bank and was forced to re­tire from her mid­dle school teach­ing job last De­cem­ber when old hip pain grew to be ex­cru­ci­at­ing. She earned $733 per month in dis­abil­ity pay, and even if she wanted to use it for home re­pairs, she couldn’t; a con­trac­tor vis­ited in Jan­uary and re­fused the work, call­ing it point­less.

“You need to knock this thing down,” she re­called him telling her.

En­gle-Harris had long con­sid­ered her­self to be what she called a “self-de­pen­dent” achiever. She grew up in this very house, went to col­lege, got a master’s de­gree— all while hob­bling around on a left leg that wouldn’t bend prop­erly, the re­sult of a child­hood bike ac­ci­dent. But En­gle-Harris was be­gin­ning to ques­tion whether she could halt what she said was a slide from the mid­dle class into poverty. “I’m ter­ri­fied,” she said.

En­gle-Harris thought she had a case to re­ceive county hous­ing sup­port be­cause, she said, the county was partly re­spon­si­ble for the prob­lem. When it paved all the roads, it did not grade them. So the roads rose well above the lawns. Ev­ery time it rained, wa­ter rolled off the as­phalt and to­ward the houses, col­lect­ing un­der flimsy porches. The neigh­bor­hood’s drainage sys­tem was over­loaded and barely func­tion­ing, and En­gle-Harris, like many of her neigh­bors, was liv­ing atop a man­made bog.

“It’s like quick­sand un­der the house,” she said. She called the money she’d spent on re­pair work “a small ban­dage on a large wound.”

So one Tues­day in mid-Jan­uary, she drove to the county ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ing and found the hous­ing of­fice.

“I am out of money,” she re­called say­ing, “and I need help.”

In the years just be­fore gam­bling, Tu­nica looked much as it did a cen­tury ear­lier — one of the most pre­served places in the Deep South. A few dozen white fam­i­lies owned nearly all the land. Blacks took mea­ger jobs on cot­ton and soy­bean farms. The poverty rate was 56 per­cent, ex­treme even by the stan­dards of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta.

A CBS “60 Min­utes” seg­ment, filmed in Tu­nica in 1985, de­picted a county with near-to­tal racial sep­a­ra­tion. African Amer­i­cans lived in homes that lacked run­ning wa­ter. Whites lived just blocks away in com­fort. They prayed in sep­a­rate places, learned in sep­a­rate places and spoke of the other race as if it was a com­pet­ing team. The white Tu­nica public su­per­in­ten­dent sent his own kids to pri­vate school. “Apartheid with­out passed laws or barbed wire,” CBS cor­re­spon­dent Mor­ley Safer called it. “It is as if there was no Lit­tle Rock, there was no Selma.”

Tu­nica’s lead­ers pitched the ad­vent of casi­nos in 1992 as a means of progress. “Ev­ery­one in Tu­nica County who wants a job, re­gard­less of their ed­u­ca­tion or skill level, can have one,” Ken­neth Mur­phree, then the county’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, said in 1998.

En­cour­aged largely by Mis­sis­sippi’s re­laxed casino taxes, the slots and black­jack ta­bles moved in fast. Faux Western sa­loons and me­dieval cas­tles rose along the river. Land prices in some ar­eas spiked 100-fold. “One of Amer­ica’s suc­cess sto­ries,” the county called it­self in pro­mo­tional pam­phlets. At the height of Tu­nica’s boom, there were nine casi­nos; it was the coun­try’s third-largest gam­bling des­ti­na­tion, be­hind Las Ve­gas and At­lantic City.

And then, the boom was over. First, new com­pet­ing casi­nos popped up across the re­gion. Then, the eco­nomic cri­sis caused mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to pull back on leisure spend­ing. A 2011 re­port by a con­sult­ing firm called it a “per­fect storm.” Visi­tors plum­meted, with the largest casino, Har­rah’s, shut­ting down last year, re­sult­ing in a loss of 1,300 jobs.

The county is now fac­ing its own fi­nan­cial prob­lems, pinched by de­clin­ing gam­ing rev­enue, and many in Tu­nica fear that a mas­sive op­por­tu­nity has been squan­dered. Reams of county records and other data go­ing back two decades, cou­pled with in­ter­views with dozens of long­time res­i­dents, as well as past and cur­rent lead­ers, show how Tu­nica strug­gled to use the wind­fall in a way that pro­duced sus­tain­able ben­e­fits for more of its res­i­dents.

Al­most no­body sec­ond-guesses the de­ci­sion to welcome casi­nos, but many res­i­dents and cur­rent lead­ers crit­i­cize the use of the money gen­er­ated. They say that it was, at least in part, mis­spent, used to nur­ture a tourism in­dus­try that is now slid­ing back­ward. Poverty ex­perts who have stud­ied the county say the gov­ern­ment would have been bet­ter off try­ing to foster broader eco­nomic growth by pay­ing greater at­ten­tion to job train­ing, build­ing skills and try­ing to re­cruit bet­ter­pay­ing in­dus­tries.

Tu­nica’s lead­ers “didn’t do a good job in build­ing op­por­tu­nity for those who were vul­ner­a­ble,” said Cyn­thia “Mil” Dun­can, an ex­pert on poverty at the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire who has ex­ten­sively stud­ied the Deep South.

The Tu­nica of to­day phys­i­cally looks much like other ar­eas in the down­trod­den Delta — but with a jar­ring col­lec­tion of half-used tourist sites and an air­port built to han­dle 737s that hasn’t ser­viced a ma­jor car­rier since 2011. Tu­nica’s 30 per­cent poverty rate, com­pared with the pre-casino days, shows sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment but is on par with the most trou­bled places in the coun­try — and twice the na­tional av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus data. Many of Tu­nica’s res­i­dents re­main in dire shape. The public high school has a 57 per­cent grad­u­a­tion rate, com­pared with 79 per­cent na­tion­ally. One in four peo­ple don’t have bank ac­counts, one of the high­est rates in the coun­try. The av­er­age life span in Tu­nica, at 67 for men and 73 for women, re­mains shorter than nearly any­where else in the United States — or El Salvador, for that mat­ter.

“If I get sick and it’s 11 p.m. at night, I have to drive 45 miles” to get medicine, said Larry Bra­ziel, a 15-year mem­ber of the Tu­nica school board and a slot ma­chine tech­ni­cian at Bally’s Tu­nica casino. “It’s ab­surd.”

For many res­i­dents in Tu­nica, the ini­tial boom opened a path to­ward a job. The casi­nos ini­tially over-hired, and Tu­nica, for am­at­ter of months, was so awash in jobs that its un­em­ploy­ment rate fell to 4 per­cent. But the job­less rate didn’t stay low long enough to fur­ther pull down the poverty rate. For those laid off, there were few places to turn. The job­less rate av­er­aged 12.3 per­cent last year.

One of Tu­nica’s most con­tro­ver­sial moves came at the be­gin­ning of the boom, when the new casi­nos hug­ging the Mis­sis­sippi River rapidly started to gen­er­ate mil­lions of dol­lars. Just as quickly, the county moved to slash prop­erty taxes to the low­est level of any county in the state, which county of­fi­cials said was an over­ture to busi­nesses and in­vestors.

Mur­phree, who ran the county from 1994 un­til 2005, said the prop­erty tax cut was a boon to ev­ery­one: “Ev­ery­body got tax re­lief. Landown­ers, ev­ery­body who owned a house.”

But it dis­pro­por­tion­ately ben­e­fited Tu­nica’s wealthy, par­tic­u­larly as some landown­ers leased their tracts to the casi­nos in lu­cra­tive long-term deals. Tax records show 76 per­cent of the county’s prop­erty tax dol­lars comes from 100 prop­erty-own­ing en­ti­ties and in­di­vid­u­als among 3,200 who own land in the county.

Most U.S. coun­ties de­pend on taxes to fund ba­sic ser­vices. But in this case, the casino money was used as a re­place­ment — help­ing to sub­si­dize the gi­ant prop­erty tax cut. If taxes were kept at their 1993 lev­els, the county would have had an ex­tra $100 mil­lion.

“Who got rich?” said Michael Thompson, who now runs the county. “The plan­ta­tion own­ers.”

Other uses of the money were well-in­ten­tioned, res­i­dents and of­fi­cials say, but did not pan out.

A big chunk of the gam­bling rev­enue, about 12 per­cent, was de­voted to the public school sys­tem — where it led to vir­tu­ally no im­prove­ment. A 1997 state re­port chided the dis­trict for “waste­ful” and “im­pru­dent” spend­ing, such as ren­o­va­tions for build­ings and “large” raises for main­te­nance and trans­porta­tion work­ers, that failed to im­prove the aca­demic set­ting.

The tourist at­trac­tions — the golf course, the mu­se­ums, the wed­ding hall— were built as part of a plan to turn the county into a place where mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans would flock for days at a time. But in this case, with the down­turn in visi­tors, those tax­payer-sub­si­dized sites have be­come a mod­est drain on the county purses.

“Ev­ery­thing was done with good in­ten­tions,” said Cedric Bur­nett, a long­time mem­ber of the county board and pres­i­dent of a lo­cal fu­neral home. “The in­ten­tion was to in­crease the pa­tron­age and get peo­ple to stay longer. Now, did it work? No, it did not.”

Other of­fi­cials say the county has in­deed made crit­i­cal strides.

“We tend to for­get how far we’ve come,” said Web­ster Franklin, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Tu­nica Con­ven­tion and Visi­tors Bureau. “In 1990, you couldn’t buy shoes in Tu­nica. There weren’t safe roads to travel on.”

In 2011, as the casino money with­ered, ac­tivists can­vassed black neigh­bor­hoods, telling vot­ers that two decades of money had been squan­dered, too lit­tle used for any­thing of value to them.

“We had peo­ple com­ing out to the polls who hadn’t voted for years,” said Joe Ed­die Hawkins, a black po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist.

The 2011 elec­tions flipped Tu­nica’s five-per­son board of su­per­vi­sors from hav­ing two black mem­bers to be­ing en­tirely black.

One of the newly elected board mem­bers called up Thompson, then a young au­di­tor in Jack­son, Miss. With casino rev­enue dwin­dling, the county needed to quickly cut its own ex­penses, some­thing it is still strug­gling to do.

“We are lit­er­ally liv­ing check to check,” Thompson said. “Like a poor fam­ily.”

Thompson, 37, who was raised poor in Mem­phis, re­cently stum­bled upon the “60 Min­utes” seg­ment on YouTube. Tu­nica, in his eyes, still had a ver­sion of the same prob­lems.

“I had all types of emo­tions,” Thompson said of the video. “Anger. Sad­ness. Dis­be­lief. All of that. Mad at the fact that this stuff used to go on like this. Sad at the fact that it has gone on for so long. And dis­be­lief that it’s still go­ing on to­day.”

En­gle-Harris was trav­el­ing to her god­son’s bas­ket­ball game when she got a call from Mardis Jones, the county hous­ing co­or­di­na­tor. En­gle-Harris was hop­ing for good news af­ter sub­mit­ting her ap­pli­ca­tion and mak­ing a plea for as­sis­tance.

Al­ready, Jones and other Tu­nica of­fi­cials had vis­ited her house, ex­am­in­ing the sloped kitchen shelves, the bed­room doors that wouldn’t close, the wood wedged un­der the toi­let to keep it in place. They had watched how En­gle-Harris and her men­tally dis­abled brother, who also lived there, hop­scotched across the firm parts of the floor, fear­ful that one wrong step would tear the ply­wood like a piece of Kleenex. “Not liv­able,” Jones had con­cluded, later telling oth­ers. “An im­me­di­ate need. . . . Messed up.”

But here, Jones had only an apol­ogy.

“We have a huge wait­ing list,” he re­called telling En­gle-Harris, “and the board doesn’t want me to move you ahead of the oth­ers. ...

“You’re look­ing at a wait of about five years to get as­sis­tance. ...

“It’s not my call. The money is short­ing up. . . . “I wish I could do more.” Five years? En­gle-Harris gulped and tried to imag­ine what might hap­pen to a sink­ing house over five years. She spent the night by her­self al­most frozen with anx­i­ety. She barely slept. She forced down a few bites of din­ner at 1 a.m.

Days passed be­fore she could bring her­self to tell rel­a­tives and friends that she wouldn’t be able to re­ceive the ren­o­va­tions. She bought fewer gro­ceries and cut down to two meals per day. She re­searched selling her Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. She watched Joel Os­teen ser­mons to stay pos­i­tive, rewind­ing the parts that she liked three and four times over. She tried to swal­low her hip pain and be­gan look­ing for part-time work — some­thing lighter than the teach­ing job she’d been forced to leave.

“It’s enough watch­ing this house col­lapse,” she said. “I don’t want to feel like a fail­ure.”

It helped lit­tle learn­ing that oth­ers across Tu­nica were en­dur­ing the same wait. The county hadn’t ren­o­vated a sin­gle home since June 2014, given the bud­get un­cer­tainty, and Jones still had 97 other peo­ple ahead of En­gle-Harris on a hous­ing list that was only grow­ing.

“If I look at my life,” En­gle-Harris said, “it’s clear there was a thin line be­tween mid­dle class and poverty.”

Though many of the fam­i­lies in En­gle-Harris’s neigh­bor­hood had al­ways been poor, hers hadn’t. Both of her par­ents had held down jobs, and in 1964 her fa­ther bought a white-painted home — the same one that was now fall­ing apart — for $3,000, “cash in hand,” ac­cord­ing to the deed for Lot 1, Block Q of the Tu­nica Col­ored Sub­di­vi­sion. Her par­ents had enough credit to take out col­lege loans for sev­eral of their eight chil­dren. En­gle-Harris grad­u­ated in 1985 from Fort Val­ley State Univer­sity in Ge­or­gia. In 1989, she earned a master’s de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion from the same school.

She held teach­ing jobs across the South, mostly in the out­skirts of At­lanta. She re­turned to Tu­nica for good in 2008 to take care of her brother, Johnny, who was strug­gling with men­tal-health is­sues. This time, she got a job at a school dis­trict one county to the south, teach­ing teenagers about New­ton’s laws of mo­tion and par­a­sites, and moved back into the fam­ily home. “Miss Ed­u­ca­tor,” one of En­gle-Harris’s neigh­bors called her, and she liked that: a per­son of es­teem. She never felt as if she be­longed in a blighted neigh­bor­hood.

When the neigh­bor­hood felt too de­press­ing, she drove 45 min­utes north to the Ten­nessee bor­der, where she bought Powerball tick­ets. Some days, when she felt she didn’t have $2 to spare, she hit the state line and sim­ply turned back.

“Any­thing to get away,” she said.

Sev­eral weeks af­ter ab­sorb­ing the news that her sit­u­a­tion wouldn’t im­prove any­time soon, En­gle-Harris de­cided to walk down the street and visit a neigh­bor who, in this part of town, passed for a suc­cess story.

Many of the homes in En­gle-Harris’s neigh­bor­hood, known lo­cally as the Old Sub, looked just as bad as her own. Blan­kets cov­ered cracked win­dows. Porches were splin­tered and V-shaped. Tarps were patched atop roofs, the kind of im­pro­vis­ing one might see in the af­ter­math of a typhoon.

But as En­gle-Harris shuf­fled down Cold­wa­ter Street and turned onto Sears Av­enue, she came across some­thing dif­fer­ent — the new­est county-built home in the neigh­bor­hood. In this case, it was a sin­gle-wide trailer on a muddy lot. En­gle-Harris knocked. “Hi,” she said when a friend opened the door. “Do you mind if I, uh, just look around? I’m try­ing to get my own home done.”

En­gle-Harris took a few steps from the door­way but didn’t sit down. There was no room.

Eight peo­ple — four gen­er­a­tions — lived in­side.

A tod­dler was sleep­ing on the floor. Two teens shared a couch. Another teenager cra­dled an in­fant in her arms.

En­gle-Harris stayed for about 10 min­utes.

A home like this, she fig­ured, was the best-case sce­nario for the last decades of her life.

“That might be what hap­pens to me,” she said. “A new trailer, right back on top of the mud.”

For now, all she could do was re­trace what had gone wrong. On a frigid evening in early March, she slipped into a room in the lo­cal court­house where Thompson, the head of the county, promised in­for­ma­tion.

“Gam­ing, Greed & Gov­ern­ment,” Thompson had writ­ten on a white­board at the front of the court­room. “The pro­lif­er­a­tion of gam­ing in Tu­nica County + The False Prom­ises of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment.”

He lin­gered near an over­head pro­jec­tor as the room filled.

“I want this to be in­for­ma­tive,” Thompson be­gan, “so we can un­der­stand how to move for­ward.”

Over the next 90 min­utes, as the wind howled and rain pelted the win­dows, he de­tailed years of gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions, all the money that flowed in. He touched lightly on the spend­ing mis­takes that fol­lowed. The casino money alone hadn’t been enough; the gov­ern­ment, 12 years ago, is­sued $30 mil­lion in debt to pay for some of its build­ings— an obli­ga­tion that it hadn’t even be­gun to pay off.

Thompson hoped his speech wouldn’t be a downer, and ended with a bit of rah-rah about the county’s “new op­por­tu­nity,” the abil­ity to de­fine the next 10 to 15 years with more sen­si­ble spend­ing. But En­gle-Harris, sit­ting by her­self in the third row, dropped her head. Nearly ev­ery res­i­dent in the court­room had ques­tions and griev­ances — about the fire depart­ment; about sher­iff ’s depart­ment fund­ing; about med­i­cal clinic salaries — and her hous­ing con­cerns were just one set on a too-long list. At the event, she never raised her hand to speak.

En­gle-Harris made it home just be­fore the snow started and put to­gether a salad with Dori­tos and hot dog pieces in­side. As she ate, she watched the wind snap at the pa­per bags she had crum­pled up to plug holes in the wall. When she woke up the next morn­ing, rib­bons of cold air were com­ing in. A few of the pa­per bags were gone.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

At top, Linda Fay En­gle-Harris, 60, takes a walk on her block in Tu­nica, Miss. Many homes, in­clud­ing her own, are in alarm­ing dis­re­pair. A county pro­gram to fix or re­place such dwellings has been plagued by fund­ing short­falls de­spite a $759 mil­lion wind­fall over two decades from the casino in­dus­try which, like these Bally’s slot ma­chines, has fallen on hard times.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

At top, theHorse­shoe Casi­noHo­tel still draws tourists and lo­cals in Tu­nica, Miss. But the hey­day of wind­fall earn­ings from the casino busi­ness seems to be gone. And crit­ics say things were built with that money— in­clud­ing an Olympic-size swimming pool and the Tu­nica River­Park wed­ding fa­cil­ity, above, which cost $26 mil­lion— at the ex­pense of the poverty-stricken res­i­dents of the county.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

At top, this cot­ton gin op­er­a­tion in Tu­nica, Miss., has been de­cay­ing for more than a decade. The casino in­dus­try was sup­posed to pull the poverty-stricken county into af­flu­ence, says a pe­riod brochure held by County Ad­min­is­tra­torMichael Thompson at a re­cent town meet­ing. He says he’s try­ing to ad­dress the cold re­al­i­ties. Ra­mona Ross, above, is just try­ing to ad­dress the cold— with wadded pa­per.

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