FEMA Homelessness Headache

Having an astute friend can be a handy thing.

Diane Nilan
4 min readJul 11, 2018


Homelessness happens, and emergency shelters help. Sometimes. Photo by Diane Nilan

I’ve been tormented for weeks thinking of my friend, Melissa, and her family down in Milton, FL who face homelessness — again, the worst kind — this Friday, the 13th.

Not only Melissa, her kids and grandkids, but dozens of kids and adults will also be kicked to the shelter-less, help-less streets of Milton, a little town north and east of Pensacola in Florida’s Panhandle. No fault of their own — a faulty sewer system has caused the county and EPA to shut it down.

And my astute friend Pat LaMarche suggested that FEMA may be responsible.

Read the back-story I wrote last week.

Melissa and her son, 10 (?)years ago when she came to speak to an audience at the film screening. Photo by Diane Nilan

If I have the story straight, after Hurricane Ivan ripped through the area in 2004, lots of people became homeless. FEMA stepped in and helped Melissa and her family. I met them soon after, interviewing her daughters for my first film, My Own Four Walls. Melissa also “starred” in our next documentary, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, where she strongly stated

“I never want to be homeless again.”

I kept up with Melissa and family, and have visited her in this trailer park over the past 13 years. I met Ms. Carla, the owner/operator. She was pretty tough on visitors, but welcomed me.

This might be for sale this weekend. Photo by Diane Nilan.

A few weeks ago, when Melissa contacted me in justified panic, it looked pretty hopeless. This sewer problem was causing the courts to order the water to be shut off on Friday the 13th of July.

Since then, the trailer court residents — 2 of whom own their units (including Melissa), the others are dirt-poor desperate renters — have learned that this sewer problem goes WAY back, probably before Melissa and other Ivan-refugees moved in.

Melissa shared this with me and said I could share it with you:

I don’t know what Ms. Carla may have signed but it is my guess she did not tell anyone of the issue. She [allegedly] paid 25,000 to have the septic system repaired but on no paperwork can you find where a Health Department inspector did the final inspection. DEP is either aware of this and passing the buck or it was was swept under the rug which ultimately led to it getting this bad. Reed Septic signed off on the work and took the money; however, they are no longer in business. FEMA was done with us when we acquired our mobile homes. I’m not sure what accountability they may have if any. With the {alleged]dementia Carla was having trouble keeping up with her mail, bills, who she gave her cards to and more. I’m willing to research that but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My thought is the Health Department is passing the buck and once the park is closed their failure to follow procedure will be gone. We have copies of some doumentation regarding the payment for the repairs but without the judge allowing us time or the opportunity to speak…our options are dwindling to making it last out there as long as we can even without water. I’m ready to be done with all this chaos and stress but renting is not something I want to do as I know without more income it’s only a matter if time before I find myself right back where we were. The family had an option to extend until August but their refusal to respond or cooperate and the realization that they took off with their mother, abandoning the park, pushed the Health Department to seek the court order to take these actions sooner. No one has provided us with complete knowledge of the cirumstances, due process, time or options. I’m willing to research anything we can do even if it’s after the fact!!!

What we know:

  • FEMA was involved with lining up Ms. Carla’s trailer park to bring in mobile homes for emergency housing.
  • Ms. Carla paid for and the health department and/or EPA had responsibilities for approving a major sewer repair that supposedly occurred back in 2003–4?
  • The families (with children and without) are the kind of renters that will have the hardest time finding alternative housing because of bad credit, evictions, court records, etc. Oh yeah, none of them are sitting on a pot of money needed to move into a new place.
  • The community — Milton or beyond, in Pensacola — have scarce resources and no room in shelters.

What’s been done:

  • Households are preparing to abandon ship. Some are immobilized with fear. Some are listlessly sorting through their meager belongings. All have used up precious resources of time and money trying to find alternatives.
  • A lawyer helped the residents prepare a motion to halt Friday’s water shut-off. It’s a hail-Mary, buy-time kind of action. (Bet the judge doesn’t let them know until last minute.)
  • Melissa, who’s one of the group’s leaders, hasn’t had time to make any plans for her and her family. She thinks she can sell her trailer. I doubt it, but hope so. But where to go when that happens?

What could be done:

  • Make FEMA step in and help. (OK, we know FEMA isn’t known for that, but really, they’re likely responsible.)
  • Sue FEMA?
  • I don’t know. I’m fresh out of ideas.
  • Message me and I’ll connect you with Melissa if you have bright ideas, or viable help (read legal).



Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us