Some Windermere fire victims still searching for housing

Evacuees with disabilities, on housing assistance hit hardest, agencies say

Posted 1/28/19

Sharon Denham finally found an apartment. Denham, who evacuated the Windermere senior living apartments amid a November fire that left one man dead, spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and the …

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Some Windermere fire victims still searching for housing

Evacuees with disabilities, on housing assistance hit hardest, agencies say

Posted

Sharon Denham finally found an apartment.

Denham, who evacuated the Windermere senior living apartments amid a November fire that left one man dead, spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and the weeks since in a hotel, hoping to find an apartment in Littleton.

She wanted to stay in the town that's been so good to her, said the 54-year-old who lives with cerebral palsy.

“I didn't want to leave my community,” Denham said from the lobby of the Staybridge Suites in Highlands Ranch, one of several hotels that many Windermere evacuees have called home since the fire resulted in the mass eviction of the tower's 163 residents.

But after two months of looking for an apartment in Littleton that could accommodate her needs and would accept her Section 8 housing voucher, Denham is moving to an all-ages low-income complex in Lakewood.

“I hope it's a community like the Windermere,” Denham said. “I feel so isolated here. At the Windermere I could just walk downstairs and find someone to sit and talk with. I hope I can have that again.”

Many still without homes

Of the seniors evicted from the building after inspectors declared it uninhabitable, at least two dozen are still working with Arapahoe County officials to find homes, said Linda Haley, the county's Senior Resources manager. Some are still in hotels, she said.

The hardest cases are residents with disabilities who use housing vouchers, Haley said. At least 21 residents use Section 8, she said.

“It's hard to find landlords who take housing vouchers, and of those that do, the units need to be accessible,” Haley said. “If I could place everyone in a third-floor walkup, we'd be set.”

Going months without their belongings has been tough for residents, Haley said. Residents were locked out of their units for days after the fire, then were given two days to move out by Tebo-Orvis LLC, the company that owns the building. Many had to send their belongings to professional cleaning services to deal with asbestos and smoke contamination.

Denham said she spent the first month after the fire without assistive devices she uses for basic tasks. It took her close to an hour to get dressed, she said, and she fell in the shower without her shower chair.

“I hope I get all my stuff back when I move in to my new apartment,” Denham said. “I haven't seen any of it since it was sent off for cleaning.”

Love Inc. volunteers lauded

Denham said she's grateful for her Navigator — a personal companion trained and provided by Love Inc., a Christian charity network that has worked closely with Windermere fire evacuees.

Love Inc. trained roughly 40 Navigators in the days after the fire, said Kathryn Roy, the group's executive director.

“They provide things money can't buy,” Roy said. Navigators helped disaster-addled victims make their way through the bureaucracy of dealing with insurance companies, landlords and governmental agencies.

Roy said her agency worked with about 60 residents, of whom about half are still active cases. Many have moved far afield, she said, roaming as far as Wheat Ridge, Aurora, and even Fort Collins and Colorado Springs seeking affordable housing.

Some staying in town

Some who held out have managed to find homes in the neighborhood.

A floor below Denham at the hotel, Ray Hays and his caretaker Carla Baker said they're close to landing an apartment in Littleton.

“It's been tough,” said Hays, 69, who is deaf in one ear and totally blind. “But at least we're not in a shelter anymore.”

The hotel has been comfortable, Hays said, though he misses his CD collection and talking books.

Hays and Baker held out for a place in Littleton because Hays has memorized the layout of the city. Also, Baker's other caretaking job is across the street from the Windermere, and without a car, her daily commute from the hotel to work is at least an hour each way on public transit.

Donations bridge gaps

Finding suitable housing has been difficult, Haley said, but a wave of donations from the public after the fire means evacuees won't struggle to come up with security deposits for new apartments.

The Arapahoe County Foundation took in nearly $75,000 for fire victims, Haley said, and has disbursed about $40,000, paying for deposits, moving crews, and a variety of other unexpected expenses that insurance companies didn't cover.

Love Inc. took in another $20,000, Roy said, which the group has used to help replace items lost in the fire and to augment the county's efforts.

“The generosity of the community was overwhelming,” Roy said. “It's helped so many people in so many ways. It's getting them through.”

The fire has changed residents, Haley said.

“A lot of folks need trauma services,” Haley said.

Denham said every time she hears a loud beep, it makes her think of the fire alarms at the Windermere.

“My heart starts pounding again,” she said.

Hays said all he and other evacuees can do is keep pressing ahead.

“We have to make it,” Hays said. “There's no other choice.”

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