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‘Gigi’ Brown: Selling pizzas for minimum wage

A year after Hurricane Katrina turned her St. Bernard Parish trailer into scrap metal, Giselle “Gigi” Brown’s quiet retirement has been transformed into a hardscrabble  existence punctuated by slinging pizzas and long commutes.

Gisele “Gigi” Brown, 74, of St. Bernard Parish, La. Owner of an uninsured mobile home worth approximately $20,000. Now relocated to a FEMA trailer in Lumberton, Miss.

A year after Hurricane Katrina turned her mobile home into scrap metal, Giselle “Gigi” Brown’s quiet retirement has been transformed into a hardscrabble existence punctuated by peddling pizzas and long commutes.

The 74-year-old widow isn’t complaining, though, as she seeks only to boost her tiny monthly income by working a part-time, minimum-wage job at Domino’s Pizza to $1,000 so she can qualify to buy her own home.

“I’m OK with it,” she says of the job at the New Orleans Arena, a good two hours from the FEMA trailer near Hattiesburg, Miss., that she temporarily calls home. “Minimum wage is not much money … (but) it’s just helping out, maybe, to get enough money to get a house. … This is what I’m shooting for.”

Brown, whose only close living relative is a brother in Nevada, was able to land the Domino’s job because she used to work there occasionally as a volunteer for a non-profit organization.

To make possible what would otherwise be an untenable commute, she drives the roughly 60 miles from the FEMA camp at the Little Black Creek Water Park to Pearl River, La., and stays at a friend’s home, then catches a ride to work with her supervisor, who lives nearby.

Brown already has gone through the Habitat for Humanity application process once, only to find out that her $567 a month in Social Security and VA benefits leaves her well short of the income needed to qualify for a home -- even with a $10,000 down payment saved from the federal assistance she received after being left homeless by Katrina.

“The lady called me to tell me that I wasn’t making enough money to get it, but she’s going to keep trying,” she says.

But with only occasional shifts available at Domino’s, she says she’s still well short of the $1,000 a month target that she says the Habitat representative told her would be the minimum necessary to be eligible for a home. She has other hurdles to clear, including the barest of credit histories because she almost always pays for things with cash.

And time is weighing on Brown, who will turn 75 in November. She moved into the trailer on Sept. 14 after a little more than two weeks in a Red Cross shelter, and since FEMA has said the trailers will be used to house Katrina victims for only 18 months, she figures she has just over six months to find a permanent place to live.

“They could tell me to stay on if I don’t have any place else … and they may not. I don’t know,” she says.

In the meantime, she spends her days chatting with old friends on the phone, talking with neighbors and occasionally feeding the squirrels in what is undoubtedly one of the most bucolic FEMA trailer parks.

“Where I’m at is fine, but it’s not home,” she says. “I need to go back to Louisiana. ...  This ‘vacation’ has lasted long enough.”