Windermere fire evacuees face difficult future

Local agencies step up to assist victims as they search for new homes

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Facing down a daunting search for new homes, the 163 seniors evicted from the Windermere apartments in Littleton after a fire rendered their building uninhabitable have a long road to travel.

“You have to fight the insurance companies for everything,” said Jude Coffee, whose sister Carolyn Vierling has been hospitalized since the Nov. 17 fire that killed resident Michael Mitchell and left more than a dozen others injured. “The adjusters' jobs are literally to give you as little as possible.”

Vierling, 73, has scarring on her lungs from the smoke that roiled through the entire five-story building during the fire, despite the fact that the flames were limited to one first-floor unit. Coffee said it's unclear when if her sister can live on her own again, or even where.

“She didn't have much to begin with,” Coffee said. “She's on Section 8 (subsidized housing vouchers). There aren't many units out there for someone like her.”

Coffee spent Dec. 4 at a “disaster recovery center” set up for residents and their families, hosted by a group of government agencies and nonprofits.

The center offered residents a chance to connect with assistance agencies, said Linda Haley, Arapahoe County's Senior Resources division manager. Haley has been spearheading much of the response to the disaster, alongside Kathryn Roy, the director of Love Inc., a Christian charity.

“It's going to take all of us in the community pitching in to give these people as soft a landing as possible,” Haley said.

Haley and Roy are two of the central players in what they call the “long-term recovery team,” composed of a variety of local agencies, including the American Red Cross, South Metro Housing Options and others.

Residents will have just two days to move their belongings, according to documents provided to the Independent. Residents have not yet been able to access their units, Haley said, and aren't sure where they'll take their belongings if they haven't yet lined up new housing.

Though most of the building's residents have renters' insurance, Haley said, it won't cover everything. Many policies don't cover food, clothing, or many household items — all of which the residents lost when they were locked out of their homes. Most residents must continue paying the equivalent of their monthly rent toward hotel stays before insurance kicks in.

Andy Boian, a spokesman for Tebo-Orvis LLC, which owns the Windermere, told residents on Dec. 3 that they should soon be able to arrange movers to retrieve their belongings from their apartments, but smoke damage means the items will need to be professionally cleaned or thrown out.

The biggest question is where everyone will go.

“The supply isn't matching the need” when it comes to housing for the displaced residents, said Ben Nichols, Arapahoe County's housing specialist.

“We're reaching out to landlords we've worked with in the past, but finding good, safe affordable housing for everyone is a challenge,” Nichols said.

Many of the residents want to stay in Littleton, Nichols said, but “Littleton's just not big enough to house all of them.”

Among the biggest stumbling blocks, Nichols said, is affordability — rents at the Windermere started at around $800 for a one-bedroom, far below Littleton's median rent for a one-bedroom, which sat at $1,465 in December, according to apartmentlist.com. Many of the Windermere's residents have little income other than Social Security, Nichols said.

Other big issues are mobility and access, Nichols said. The Windermere afforded easy access to public transit and Littleton's wealth of senior resources, and was easily handicapped accessible.

“Many of the older units around the area don't have elevators,” Nichols said. “Ground-floor units are in high demand, but people tend to stay in those long-term.”

Finding appropriate housing would “mean everything” to the displaced residents, Nichols said.

“The lost their community, their homes, and all their belongings,” Nichols said. “A little stability would go a long way.”

Residents have a variety of other needs, said Roy, the Love Inc. director.

Love Inc. has been providing rides to residents, helping them get to apartment showings, doctor appointments, and to resident meetings, Roy said.

The group also provides “navigators” — volunteers who help residents make their way through the miasma of bureaucracy surrounding their situation.

Love Inc. has also provided communal meals to residents stuck in hotels, offering a vital but intangible service: fellowship.

“We'll be here with these folks for the long haul,” Roy said. “We ask for prayers for the journey ahead for these evacuees.”

Recovering from the ordeal of the fire and eviction will take time, said Maggie Babyak, one of the co-founders of Our Front Porch, a disaster recovery nonprofit group.

“We're discovering that a lot of people need trauma services,” Babyak said. Her group provides mental health treatment and advocacy, among other services.

Indeed, the trauma is still sinking in, said Paul Draper, a resident who has spent the days since the fire in an extended-stay hotel with his wife Pauline.

A resident in a neighboring unit set off a smoke alarm when he burned some food in his kitchenette on a recent night, Draper said, sending his wife into a panic.

“She's such a positive person, and it's so hard to see her sobbing like that,” Draper said. “Our 55-year wedding anniversary is coming up, and we've been through a lot, but never anything like this. This is hard.”

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