Saturday, September 3, 2011

BRATTLEBORO - Finding housing for those who need it has been a difficult task for aid agencies in the region and in the state, but their efforts are starting to coalesce into one grand plan.

Currently, the American Red Cross is providing emergency shelter for those who need it right away, but soon many of those people will need long-term housing.

"When the Red Cross closes a shelter, we work with them to make sure that there's a smooth transition from the shelter to temporary housing or we work with them to find long-term housing," said Richard Giddings, the deputy commissioner for the Economic Services Division of the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

Unfortunately, his job has been made all that much harder because the department's offices in Waterbury were flooded, which destroyed a number of newly received applications for assistance.

It's important for people who recently submitted applications and think their documents might have been lost to call the division at 800-479-5161, said Giddings.

But on the bright side, he said, previously issued Electronic Benefits Transfer cards have been refreshed for the month of September.

Knowles Wentworth, Morningside's shelter case manager, said he has been working with Windham County of United Way to find housing for those displaced by the storm.

"We have been assessing what people in different communities need," he said.


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Those affected by the storm will soon receive gas cards - to be used for vehicles or to gas up their generators - or disposable cameras to document damage to their properties.

Then the United Way will be meeting with people to determine exactly how it can help.

United Way has set up a longterm disaster relief fund and has kick-started the contributions with money left over from the Brooks House fund, which was established to help those affected by the fire in April.

"Anything we had left over we put into the disaster relief fund," said Carmen Derby, executive director of United Way. "It's a significant amount."

However, that doesn't mean those still affected by the Brooks House fire won't get any additional help they might need, she said.

On Monday, teams will be going out to area communities to define the needs so the United Way can determine how best to respond.

"We are trying to be smart and are not rushing off in an unhelpful or inefficient way," said Wentworth. "We need to do it right."

Cliff Bergh, director of field services for the Vermont State Housing Authority, said they are asking those who have been displaced by the storm to fill out applications for assistance.

"We are hoping to get some specific crisis-related subsidies available," he said.

However, to receive Section 8 funding, applicants must be income eligible, said Bergh.

"Be very specific that your case is related to the flood and then we will evaluate your from there," he said. "If you're income eligible we can issue you a voucher."

The vouchers aren't for temporary housing, said Bergh, but rather for those who are able to sign, at minimum, a one-year lease.

Jennifer Hollar, of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, said her department is focusing on the need to rebuild and restore both private and commercial housing.

"We have created a call center for owners of rental properties to call us and report damages," she said. "We are also reaching out to the mobile home owners across the state, who are among the hardest hit."

The information collected by the VHFA is being collected to support FEMA's preliminary damage assessment, said Hollar. Once the VHFA knows what FEMA can do, it can step in and fill the gaps, she said.

"We are also talking with Housing and Urban Development to try to secure additional housing resources," said Hollar.

Christine Hart, the executive director of the Brattleboro Housing Authority, said it is working as hard as it can to get its clients back into their apartments at Melrose Place.

"We had significant site damage," she said. About half of the 80 units have been reopened, said Hart.

Unfortunately, the BHA can't help non-clients, she said.

The Windham and Windsor Housing Trust had damage to only two properties, said Connie Snow, executive director.

"We feel pretty lucky," she said. Two buildings, one in Saxtons River and one in Cavendish, were damaged. There was a little water in the Wilder Building in Brattleboro as well.

"We also have a building on Main Street in Wilmington but it's fine," said Snow.

Because The trust's properties escaped relatively unscathed, said Snow, "We are able to focus on responding. We have put together a list of apartments we have available."

While the list is "just a drop in the bucket" compared to the need, said Snow, it can help some people. "We've made that list available to the housing authority and we're taking the list over to Wilmington for a community meeting," she said.

In addition, anybody can come into the Trust's offices at 68 Birge St., and fill out an application, said Snow. "We are going to do anything we can to expedite applications," she said.

However, the Trust is unable to arrange emergency housing for people, said Snow. The units the Trust has available are for longterm housing needs, she said.

"If we have vacant apartments, we are going to try to get them in as fast as we can," said Snow.

The Trust also has available a rehabilitation low-cost, and sometimes deferred, loan fund for home owners, she said.

"We can make loans for furnaces, driveways, appliances, septic systems, etc.," said Snow. "But it's most appropriate for those without flood insurance."

Pat Burke, of Southeastern Vermont Community Action, said the offices in Westminster have been "absolutely bombarded" with calls for help.

"We've gone out and checked with 42 towns in Windsor and Windham counties to find out what they need," said Burke. "A lot of the towns are still dealing with the major issue of getting their roads open assessing the damage."

SEVCA is working with the Red Cross and FEMA and will be working with the United Way when it takes over.

"We are going to be here for the long term after the Red Cross and FEMA are gone," said Burke. Currently, SEVCA is taking clothes donations and hopes to coordinate a furniture drive to collect household items for those who lost stuff during the flooding, she said.

Paul Capcara, the executive director of the Morningside Shelter in Brattleboro, said they have no excess capacity for those displaced by the storm.

"We haven't had an empty bed for three years because we've been dealing with the constant emergency of homelessness not related to natural disasters," said Capcara. "We feel bad, but there's no room at the inn."

Those looking for a place to stay or assistance in paying for a place to stay should first call 2-1-1 or visit VT211.com, said a number of people.

"They have housing specialists that can help people locate a shelter," said Capcara.

Giddings admitted 2-1-1 has been overwhelmed by calls for assistance, but said with the division's new help line up and running, it should take some pressure off the emergency line.

Economic Services Division of the Vermont Department of Children and Families - 800-479-5161.

Vermont State Housing Authority - 802-828-3295.

Vermont Housing Finance Agency - 1-800-339-5866.

Windham and Windsor Housing Trust - 802-254-4604.

SEVCA - 802-722-4575.

United Way of Windham County - 802-257-4011.