Windermere evacuees say goodbye to community

Seniors evicted after November fire move on

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Pauline Draper gathered up her coat and scarf, and headed off to sign paperwork officially severing ties to the Windermere apartments.

The warm sunshine outside the Life Center was a far cry from the cold, blustery morning a month earlier, when Draper, 74, and her husband Paul, 75, were among the throngs of scared, shivering seniors who crowded into the building as they watched emergency personnel pull their neighbors from the apartment tower on South Datura Street in Littleton.

An early morning fire on Nov. 17 left one resident dead and many more injured. On Dec. 18, as swarms of moving crews hauled their belongings from the building, many of the same seniors returned to the Life Center, this time to say goodbye.

“It's like a funeral,” Pauline said.

She and Paul are moving to an apartment in Wheat Ridge.

“We're leaving a community of friends," she said. "But it's also a new beginning. It's bittersweet, but there's relief, too.”

The building's 163 residents spent the two weeks after the fire locked out of their units before they were told the building had been declared uninhabitable due to asbestos contamination and smoke damage. Residents had to wait another week before entering their units, and Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the building, gave them two days to move out.

A dozen residents spent several days living in a makeshift Red Cross shelter at the Life Center, and dozens have spent the month since the fire living in hotels.

Many still don't have new homes, said Linda Haley, Arapahoe County's Senior Resources manager, who has spearheaded much of the response to the disaster.

County officials have been working to find homes for roughly 80 residents, Haley said, and have placed 27 so far. There simply aren't enough suitable apartments in the area for them all, she said.

Karlene Austgen, 68, said she's still waiting to hear back about an apartment in Englewood while she stays with her sister. Meanwhile, crews will take her belongings to be professionally cleaned for smoke damage.

The month since the fire has been exhausting, Austgen said, “but it's given me a greater appreciation for friends and family. God is in control, and he has a plan if we just hang together.”

Others are moving into vacant apartments in the Windermere's other tower, site of a fire in 2016 that also saw more than a hundred residents evicted.

Anne Heathman, 73, is among those moving to the other building, off Windermere Street. Her apartment on the first floor was one of nine that was declared a total loss. She has been unable to retrieve any belongings, she said, including jewelry and souvenirs from her world travels.

She said she doesn't want to stay at the Windermere, but “the bottom line is there aren't enough apartments in the area.” Her rent will increase by more than $400, she said.

Virginia Downs, 71, is also moving to the other tower — which she was evicted from after the 2016 fire.

“I'm staying because even with the rent increase, it's still cheaper than what else is out there,” Downs said. Moving into other apartments can run into the thousands of dollars, she said, after tallying up application fees, security deposits, first and last month's rent and pet fees, she said.

Asked if she's worried about more fires, Downs said, “I can't even think about that now. There's been too much trauma and stress.”

Many residents are struggling with the effects of anguish and trauma, said Kathryn Roy, the executive director of Love Inc., a Christian charity that has worked closely with residents.

The group has trained and dispatched dozens of “navigators,” volunteers who help residents handle not just the agony of losing their homes and belongings, but also the morass of bureaucracy around dealing with insurance and other agencies.

Lyle Wentzel, 76, said the experience has pushed him to the limit.

“I try to keep an even keel, but I'm ready to explode at times,” Wentzel said.

He and his wife Sharon are moving into the Windermere's other tower, and will pay $300 more per month for an apartment there.

For Pauline Draper, the tasks ahead include being thankful.

“You've got to live every day to the fullest,” Draper said. “You can't carry baggage.”

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