Rural communities need help figuring out how to navigate federal programs The USDA has hired people to help small communities tap the complex web of programs for money they need to address big problems. But that help is only available in select areas.

Rural communities want to tap federal funding. But it's hard to know where to start

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A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

Small communities across America could use the federal government's help with housing, utilities and hospitals. But NPR's Ximena Bustillo reports many have a hard time applying for it.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Laura Thomas is mayor of Jackson. It's a small town in the southeastern part of Kentucky. And in the past three years, it has been hit by some big disasters - two historic floods, a destructive ice storm and the pandemic.

LAURA THOMAS: If you could see my desk, you can see I'm just totally overwhelmed.

BUSTILLO: Thomas wants help from the federal government to rebuild homes, but it's hard to know where to start.

THOMAS: We just get a different kind of answer each time you ask. And this is kind of like our one shot probably in my lifetime of ever getting this much federal money to help us make improvements in the community.

BUSTILLO: There are some 400 federal programs for rural areas, and then there's all the new money from the infrastructure law and the climate spending bill. But she's on her own when it comes to figuring out how to get the grants.

THOMAS: We have a city clerk, and we have an assistant clerk. That's it here at City Hall.

BUSTILLO: The White House knows it's a problem not just for Jackson, but for small communities across the country. So they launched the Rural Partners Network. It's a pilot program where federal employees help communities navigate assistance programs. Right now it's running in parts of 10 states and Puerto Rico.

XOCHITL TORRES SMALL: Unlike so many federal agencies, we have people who live in the communities that they serve.

BUSTILLO: That's Xochitl Torres Small. She's in charge of the rural development branch of the Agriculture Department, which is running the program. She wants to make sure that small towns don't miss this chance for new housing, broadband, sewage and road repairs. So the Rural Partners Network is hiring people like Rachel Chambers. She's helping to connect a group of eight counties in Kentucky to federal help, especially for people dealing with the aftermath of the floods.

RACHEL CHAMBERS: There weren't enough housing rental vouchers in east Kentucky before the flood. There were people that were precariously housed, and now after the flood, over 1,600 homes were evicted as a result. And the need for housing is greater than it ever was.

BUSTILLO: One problem - it's only eight counties, and it doesn't include places like Jackson, where Mayor Thomas is looking for help. But Chambers says she's doing what she can to make a difference. One thing she found was that housing repair grants didn't give enough money to help people rebuild their homes. That led to policy changes in Washington, said the Agriculture Department's Torres Small.

TORRES SMALL: And so because of her work, we were able to change regulations to provide more funds for home repair in Kentucky and in other places that had experienced disasters.

BUSTILLO: The program has also helped the tiny town of Darling, Miss. It needed money to build a sewage system.

INES POLONIUS: We've got straight pipes of people's sewer flowing into creeks.

BUSTILLO: That's Ines Polonius, the head of Communities Unlimited, a nonprofit in the South.

POLONIUS: The sewer's in ditches. I mean, we've got a real issue in terms of sanitation and health.

BUSTILLO: Polonius says the pilot program helped get Darling the money it needed.

POLONIUS: A project like this would normally take two years. So we went from - basically, you can say, in four months we knew about the award. Now we can move into construction.

BUSTILLO: The Agriculture Department says it's starting to see results from this small pilot program. Now it wants to hire more people in more places, but they need more money from Congress. And unless the government can build up this small network, communities like Jackson in Kentucky could be left to figure it out on their own.

Ximena Bustillo, NPR News.

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