February 13, 2009 12:06PM

Henrietta Hughes, HUD, and the Ft. Myers Public Housing Authority

Henrietta Hughes, the southwest Florida woman who was singled out this week by President Obama at a "stimulus" rally in Ft. Myers, Fl., is being labeled by the press as "the face of the economic crisis."

According to ABC News, Hughes told the president in front of the crowd, "I have an urgent need, unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in.... The housing authority has two years' waiting lists, and we need something more than the vehicle and the parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help."  President Obama gave her a kiss on the cheek, and told her, 'We're going to do everything we can to help you, but there are a lot of people like you."

An uproar has ensued between left and right factions of the blogosphere. There have been accusations that Hughes was planted at the rally by the president's handlers. There have been questions regarding a house she apparently owned and sold. And yesterday a local news outlet reported that a local faith-based nonprofit had offered Hughes and her son living arrangements, which she turned down.

I have no idea what is or isn't true, but I don't doubt this woman and her son are in a tough spot. What caught my eye was Hughes' accusation that the Ft. Myers Public Housing Authority has a two-year waiting list. Whether planted or not, the president was handed a convenient prop to stir public opinion in favor of the so-called "stimulus." The implied message was: "Pass this stimulus so people like Henrietta Hughes and her son will have a home."

So I decided to look into what sort of federal money the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) has been pumping into Ft. Myers and surrounding Lee County, Fl. The government's USAspending.gov website is a useful, if imperfect, tool for uncovering who and where our tax dollars are going.

As it turns out, the Housing Authority of the City of Fort Myers has received over $41 million in HUD from just fiscal years 2006 to 2008. According to population estimates for Ft. Myers, that sum equals $600 for every man, woman, and child in the city. But that's just the housing authority. When I added up all HUD housing and community development monies for Ft. Myers and Lee County, I came up with just under $70 million over the same period of time. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has given the area $18 million over those three years for consolidated health centers, which includes funds for health care for the homeless and public housing primary care. Thus, the three-year grand total of federal dollars to activities that are designed to help people like Henrietta Hughes and her son in Ft. Myers/Lee County equals almost $90 million.

Let's keep in mind that we're only talking about federal money. A reporter with more time than I have should look into how much state and local tax dollars are being spent on the homeless and low-income housing in the Ft. Myers/Lee County area. Even after adding in state and local government money, private charities such as churches and civic organizations also provide such services.

Let's also keep in mind that HUD housing and community development programs are notoriously wasteful, as I noted in this post. If Hughes' claim that the Ft. Myers Public Housing Authority has her on a two-year wait is true, I think the HUD inspector general's office needs to launch an audit to see what's happening with the federal taxpayer dollars that have already been spent there. In the meantime, an administration that talks a good game about transparency and accountability should not deceive the American people into believing that more federal dollars being spent on failed federal experiments, which is what HUD is, will provide economic prosperity or alleviate the impoverished.