This is what you lose when you lose your home in a fire

When an apartment tower burned, seniors lost belongings, homes and community. Rebuilding and reconnecting will take time and a lot of help.

The Windermere apartments in Littleton, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Windermere apartments in Littleton, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At nearly 80 years old, Gudrun Peyton is settling in to an apartment far from her home of the last few years. She’ll have to find new friends and develop new habits, something we all know is tough to do at any age.

At least she has housing, in a Wheat Ridge complex. Peyton is among the 163 seniors who lost their homes when an accidental fire in a unit in at the Windermere apartments in Littleton caused extensive smoke damage and asbestos contamination.  A 70-year-old resident was killed and 13 other people were injured. Soon after, the five-story, 134-unit building was declared uninhabitable. Just before the long weekend for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, county officials confirmed 102 of the residents had found long-term housing, with the rest still at hotels or with friends or relatives weeks after the blaze.

It’s often said that any of us could be propelled into housing insecurity by a car breakdown, illness, a fire in a neighbor’s kitchen. What’s at risk is not just a house or a home, but a sense of belonging. In the Denver area’s heated market, the consequences can be especially agonizing for older residents already struggling with isolation, and whose fixed incomes leave little wriggle room in an emergency.

Linda Haley, who manages Arapahoe County’s Housing, Community Development, and Senior Resources Division, has seen it before. The Windermere is part of a two-tower complex. An accidental fire in 2016 at the other tower forced more than 100 people from their homes.

“When you look around any community there are a lot of apartment buildings that have a significant number of people in them, a significant number of seniors,” Haley said.

“Everyone needs to realize that this could happen in your town or city and have a plan for how you’re going to pull together staff to meet all the needs,” she said. “You have to hit the ground running when these things happen. You can’t just sit back for a month and hope things will sort themselves out.”

Liana Escott, a program manager with Arapahoe County (left), hands a gift card to James Quinn, a former resident of the Windermere apartments, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Liana Escott, a program manager with Arapahoe County (left), hands a gift card to James Quinn, a former resident of the Windermere apartments, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Most local governments have emergency response systems to deal with a disaster and its immediate aftermath. Haley recommends reaching out to possible partners ahead of any need to make contacts that will be crucial in a long-term emergency. Haley has a team of nonprofits and church groups; government colleagues in Arapahoe County and beyond; and landlords and other private sector players.  She has also seen the importance of personal networks — the most resilient among those displaced are those with support from friends and family.

“It’s the people who don’t have that who really take the longest to recover,” Haley said.

Peyton was first alerted to the fire by the beeping of an alarm.

It was about 5:30  the morning of Nov. 17, the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

“At first I thought it was a false alarm,” Peyton said.

She did not smell smoke. But she heard screams and pounding footsteps. Hurrying from her fourth-floor apartment to the nearest stairwell, she saw the smoke she had not detected earlier. Instead of taking those stairs down the center of the building, Peyton headed to another set at the end of a hall. On the way down she met another resident and later someone she believes was a first responder because he was younger and because he at first led her all the way to the basement — he was unfamiliar with the building.

She was told an emergency shelter had already been set up across the street at the Life Center, a church-run community center.

“I thought I was going to be able to walk across by myself,” she said. But she was having trouble breathing, perhaps because of the smoke, perhaps because of the stress of the moment. A first responder found her clinging to a fence and put her in a wheelchair.

“I said, ‘No hospital, please,”‘ Peyton said. She was wheeled to Red Cross workers at the Life Center, where she found a crowd of neighbors.

“We were all in shock,” Peyton said.

“The Red Cross lady was all calm and collect. I couldn’t believe how collected she was.”

Andrea Carlson, communications officer for American Red Cross operations in Colorado and Wyoming, said that while Peyton and her neighbors were in the first moments of a “terrible, life-changing” event, Red Cross staff and volunteers “deal with a home fire or disaster several times a week.” The calm Peyton saw was the result of training, experience and, again, partnerships.

Other communities can also rely on the Red Cross. In Denver, Loa Esquilín García, spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management, said her office plans for an emergency like the one that struck the Windermere included bringing together various city and county agencies, the Red Cross and other nonprofits and the private sector to meet emergency shelter and other immediate needs. Later, the main responsibility of long-term recovery would shift to Denver Human Services, which manages a range of benefits programs and is home to the agency that coordinates support for people experiencing homelessness, Esquilín García said.

Esquilín García said the planning for anything on the scale of the Windermere fire has not been tested recently. The closest episode, she said, was a fire in March at a building under construction in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood that killed two people. While the building under construction was uninhabited, the fire forced the evacuation of about 100 people from their homes in neighboring buildings. All of those evacuated were able to return to their homes,  Esquilín García said.

In Littleton, the Red Cross had worked before with Mission Hills, the church that runs the Life Center where Peyton found a haven.

“They literally hand us the keys and say, ‘You do what you need to do,'” the Red Cross’s Carlson said.

A Red Cross response team made up mostly of volunteers set up cots in the Life Center, transforming the kind of place you might go for a community meeting about rezoning into a maze of bedding.  Volunteers come from all walks of life — teachers, entrepreneurs, power company workers, IT experts, military veterans. Carlson said her organization is “always, always, always” looking to add to its team.

The main criteria, Carlson said, is a “person who can think: ‘This is not about me right now, This is about what I can do for others.”

Windermere residents were checked for injuries. It was determined who had left walkers, medication and glasses behind and the word went out for those and other supplies, including food, warm drinks and clothing.

“Many of them only had the pajamas they had on,” Carlson said of the evacuees.

And many, as Peyton said, were traumatized. The Red Cross team included counselors. Counselors also regularly check in with volunteers and staff to ensure they are not being overwhelmed by what they are witnessing.

Peyton was so upset once she reached the shelter that, trying to reach her daughter, she at first called her own phone number.

Her daughter, Angela Morsman, lives in Littleton. A Red Cross volunteer helped Peyton make the connection.

“It was raining. It was a cold, rainy, icky day,” Morsman recalled of that morning.

Peyton was able to leave that same day with Morsman. Others stayed through the weekend as Red Cross and other responders helped sort out the next step of their housing, in some cases getting hotels to offer discounts. The nearby Littleton United Methodist Church also would serve as a shelter in the early days.

Arapahoe County’s Haley said only 10 to 15 percent of the Windermere evacuees moved in with relatives.

“We’re a mobile community now and not everyone’s family is here,” Haley said. While a few of the Windermere seniors were couples, most were like Peyton, widowed or divorced and living alone in their apartments.

“We aren’t all blessed with functional families that can step in,” Haley said.

Some families might be housing-insecure themselves, perhaps renting from landlords who would move to evict them on grounds of violating a lease by taking in an extra person.

Thanksgiving, Peyton’s daughter said, was oddly normal. Her mother usually spends the day with Morsman, her son-in-law and her granddaughter and grandson. This year, family friends also came down from the mountains. Peyton’s son from Lakewood joined the Morsmans.  The only change from previous years was that Peyton did not return to her own home after the family gathering.

Dec. 3 found Peyton near her home. The Windermere’s owners had called a tenants’ meeting that day at Littleton United Methodist, which was decorated for Christmas with red ribbons and a tree. Morsman accompanied her mother. Other tenants also came with or were represented by relatives and friends. Haley from Arapahoe County was there. The Red Cross sent members of its mental health team.

“You never know what can happen,” the Red Cross’s Carlson said.

As they settled into pews, people murmured about how to suspend cable TV subscriptions and collect their mail. Then came the news from Andy Boian, a spokesman for the building’s owners:

“The building has been deemed uninhabitable.”

His words were greeted with soft, stunned moans from the crowd of 100 or so.

“That was the decision made by the city. That is something we have no control over,” Boian said, describing the asbestos spill.

He promised reimbursements of security deposits and rent for the last half of November. In addition, he said the building owners would pay each tenant $500.

“It’s time now for you to do a couple of things,” Boian said.

At the top of his list were finding new housing and contacting insurance companies.

A meeting for former residents of the Windermere apartments across the street at Littleton United Methodist Church, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A meeting for former residents of the Windermere apartments across the street at Littleton United Methodist Church, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Haley said that following the 2016 Windermere fire, it was discovered that many residents did not have rental insurance. That left them scrambling for cash to cover the expenses, big and small, that crop up when you’re recovering. After 2016 Windermere tenants were required to have rental insurance, though Haley said a few slipped through without it. Arapahoe County Commissioners established a fund through the Arapahoe County Foundation to support Windermere evacuees, some of whom needed help paying hotel bills and later security deposits.

Even without insurance, as far as Haley has been able to determine, no one ended up homeless after the first Windermere fire. Haley said she hoped to be able to say the same after the second. At  least in the first months all the displaced were, if not in permanent housing, at least in safe temporary quarters. But the housing market has only become more expensive since 2016 and earnings have remained stagnant.

Haley has three full-time and one part-time staff to hunt down housing leads and respond to other needs of the Windermere displaced, in addition to regular duties. Those duties include preparing for the annual count of people experiencing homelessness.

“We don’t need 163 more homeless people in this neck of the woods,” Haley said.

Haley said many seniors in her county are getting by on less than $1,000 a month. Subsidized apartment buildings have long waiting lists. The Windermere was not officially low-income, though its rents were below-market, Haley said. Its managers also accepted tenants with federal housing vouchers, a program sometimes called Section 8. Of those evacuated, Haley said, the 21 on Section 8 have been among the most difficult to re-house because landlords often refuse to accept the vouchers.

Social worker Maggie Babyak works with disaster victims, including a woman who lived at the Windermere and not only has federal housing benefits but relies on a walker and cannot manage more than a few stair steps. She needs an apartment on a ground floor or in a building with an elevator.

“We just cannot find her a Section 8 rental in Littleton,” Babyak said.

Most of the Windermere evacuees earn $1,200 or $1,300 a month, Haley said. In the wake of the fire, Haley was contacted by some managers of luxury assisted living communities who had vacancies. Landlords called from Colorado Springs or Fort Collins, where rents are cheaper. But someone in their 70s or 80s might feel intimidated in the face of such a big move.

“You spend a lot of time on the phone with people who aren’t offering realistic options,” Haley said.

Some former Windermere tenants hadn’t been apartment-hunting since the era of checking a newspaper’s classified ads. Haley found a lot of wariness about Craigslist. She also found landlords insisting tenants show rent would not take up more than about a third of their income, which would have severely limited their choices. Haley assured landlords that older tenants have good payment records, often taking care of the rent and utilities at the beginning of the month, then making do as far as food and other necessities until their next checks arrive.

The afternoon at Littleton United Methodist when they learned their old homes were uninhabitable, Peyton and her neighbors were told help desks would open the next day back at the Life Center, where the evacuation center had been set up. Later, they heard, they would have a few days to pack up their apartments and move out. They, insurance adjusters and movers would have to use the stairs, as the elevators were in a part of the building declared off-limits because of  fire damage and asbestos. Nine apartments had been found too damaged ever to be reentered.

Peyton moved slowly as she and her daughter left the meeting.

For some, reconnecting was as important as rebuilding.

Two days later, Peyton’s daughter, Morsman, was back at the Life Center. Peyton did not come. As Morsman waited to speak to an insurance agent at one table, she clutched information sheets she had collected from tables set up by Windermere management, Haley’s office, Red Cross and others. She also held an armful of underwear for her mother she’d been given by another group.

In later days similar gatherings would be held at the Methodist church. The atmosphere was convivial. At Life Center, a woman said her 90-year-old mother had, since the 2016 fire in the neighboring tower, kept a bag ready with a change of underwear and clothing and room to throw in her medications. The bag came in handy the morning of the November fire.

Julie Muise (right) laughs with Nellie Onderson during a meeting for former residents of the Windermere apartments at Littleton United Methodist Church, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Julie Muise (right) laughs with Nellie Onderson during a meeting for former residents of the Windermere apartments at Littleton United Methodist Church, Dec. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Some of the people at the help center seemed less interested in gathering advice at the tables than in sitting on folding chairs and sharing stories with their old neighbors. At Windermere, they’d had handy access to buses and to shopping, churches, a library, government offices. They also had each other. The displacement caused by the fire was a watershed.

Kathryn Roy, executive director of Love in the Name of Christ, a faith network known as Love INC, was among those helping running the help desks at the Life Center.

“One of the heartbreaks for us is that these community members are no longer our neighbors,” she said of the evacuees. “Because of the housing market, there is no way many of them will be able to stay.”

Social worker Babyak said before the fire one woman from the Windermere spent her days driving her neighbors to appointments and activities. After the fire, she suddenly had little to do. Another woman told Babyak that she didn’t expect to feel so isolated in the wake of the fire until she realized she had “lost my entire community overnight.” But Babyak said the woman spoke with a smile, which the social worker saw as evidence of her determination to bounce back.

“This was a tight-knit community and I think that displacement is going to be more isolating than they expect,” Babyak said.

Arapahoe County’s Haley said she has heard many of those displaced from the Windermere express concerns about loneliness. She and her staff try to let them know about how to make connections after they move, filling them in on transit options and community organizations.

Peyton was pleased to discover that a couple she knew from Windermere was moving to the Wheat Ridge complex that would be her new home.

Love INC is organizing a February social event to bring former Windermere residents together and putting together an address list to help old neighbors stay in touch. That’s a continuation of serving that began with buying clothes for evacuees on the morning of the fire and included creating a team of navigators who have worked one-one-one to help the Windermere seniors figure out insurance forms, hunt for lost documents, sort through housing options.

“We have 40 people who signed up to walk along with people,” Roy said. “Some of the navigators went in (to apartments after the fire) when the residents couldn’t because they were on the fifth floor and the people couldn’t get up there.”

Now that she has seen how important such connections can be, Roy is thinking about how to continue the navigation experiment beyond emergency response. Roy envisions a program that would, for example, put navigators in regular touch with shut-in seniors, which would improve the kinds of social networks that are crucial when disaster strikes.

Our Front Porch, a Denver-based nonprofit founded four years ago, helped train the Love INC navigators. Our Front Porch was co-founded by social worker Babyak, who said caregivers can end up feeling as traumatized as those they are trying to support. Babyak urges helpers — whether family, friends, staff from insurance providers and other companies as well as from nonprofits and government agencies — to pay attention to their own needs as well and be clear about what they can and can’t do.

Babyak has worked with people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut and Colorado and responded to disasters such as Katrina. Front Porch co-founder Heather Korth, an architect, also has worked in disaster response. Babyak said on average it takes three to four months to find a new home after an event like the Windermere fire.

“To see it in this magnitude is eye-opening for sure,” Babyak said of the dozens of people affected by the Windermere fire.

Our Front Porch also has done its own navigation, working most actively with five former Windermere residents — calling insurance companies on their behalf, helping them find food pantries, explaining how to request copies of documents like birth certificates they are having trouble getting their hands on in the disruption of displacement. Our Front Porch also checks in regularly with people who initially refused aid, perhaps out of pride or politeness, but might change their minds.

Peyton had a Love INC navigator. She also had her daughter, Morsman.

Babyak doesn’t underestimate the challenge of weighing options and taking action when your reaction times have been slowed and your ability to reason affected by stress, survivor’s guilt — didn’t others suffer more? — and sometimes physical manifestations of psychological turmoil Working with disaster survivors trying to supply the information and documentation an insurance requires, Babyak said, “drives me crazy, and it’s not even my issue.”

For Morsman, it’s been like taking on a full-time job. There were times over the holidays when she felt overwhelmed. But despite Babyak’s experience, Morsman found the insurance “surprisingly easy to deal with.” She credited her brother in Lakewood, who included his mother on his household insurance.

The policy included a $3,000 payment, less a $500 deductible, in case of loss-of-use that Morsman had thought would only be paid if her mother needed it to cover hotel bills while awaiting permanent housing. The insurance company paid up even though Peyton stayed with relatives. Insurance also covered the steam-clean of clothing and other items that smelled of smoke, the storage of belongings until the new apartment was ready, and the move.

As a day in the aftermath of a disaster goes, a bright mid-December Friday “went pretty well.”

That was Morsman’s assessment after, among other errands, picking up her mother’s mail, which had been diverted to Littleton’s downtown post office.

Morsman had also been in her mother’s apartment, climbing the stairs and making her way past signs warning of asbestos contamination. Peyton did not go in.

“I was allowed. I just didn’t feel like it,” Peyton said.

Peyton knows some of her neighbors had been worried about pets they’d left behind. Her cat was 19 years old when it died two years ago. Just before the fire she had been considering adopting a new pet.

“Everything was still in pretty good shape,” Morsman found. “I was picturing everything covered in soot.”

She brought out some of her mother’s winter gear — coats, a pair of boots. She also retrieved her mother’s green card. The German-born Peyton came to the United States in 1960 after marrying an American serviceman she’d met at a U.S. base in her homeland. She had divorced him long before he died in 1993.

Morsman’s quick reconnaissance had reassured her about the task of packing that then was still ahead.

“I hope I’ll be strong enough to do it,” Peyton said.

Morsman responded gently: “You don’t have to, mom. The insurance is paying people to be there.”

While Peyton did not go into her apartment that day, she did go along with Morsman to county offices to request a renewal of identification that had expired before the blaze. Peyton hadn’t felt much urgency then. Now, finding a new home and rebuilding her life meant all sorts of documents had a new importance. Mother and daughter left the county office building with assurances the ID would be renewed within two weeks, and then headed to a bagel shop for lunch.

“I’m not feeling very upset. I’m just feeling very, very tired,” Peyton said over a sandwich.

Babyak, the social worker,  is used to disaster survivors minimizing what they’re going through. Often seniors in particular won’t ask for help.

“They’re very polite — ‘We don’t need anything.'”

They might say at the beginning that they’ve just lost a few belongings. Then “you realize it’s everything, and you’re starting over,” Babyak said.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is just the trauma piece,” Babyak said. “Everyone’s adjusting to the new situation.”

Morsman has had heart trouble. But her lack of energy and a flare-up of urinary problems since the fire may be connected to the stress of displacement.

The new apartment is a 45-minute drive for Peyton’s daughter, Morsman, from her Littleton home.

“I’m not always going to be able to take her where ever she needs to go,” said Morsman, whose been the one making sure her mother gets to medical and other appointments.

In the bagel shop, she turned to her mother, looking into eyes whose gray-green matches her own.

“It’s been awhile since you’ve taken the bus. Are you going to be okay with that?”

Peyton’s responded wearily: “I don’t know.”

After spending weeks shuttling between the homes of her daughter in Littleton and her son in Lakewood, Peyton moved into her Wheat Ridge apartment in mid January.

At $1,075, the Wheat Ridge place is more expensive than the $750 plus utilities Peyton had paid for her old apartment, with help from her son. She’d lived at the Windermere for five years and said the rent was $450 when she moved in. The cost rose quickly in part because she signed only short-term leases, which are more expensive, in hopes of finding a more affordable home. Even before the fire she’d looked at a one-bedroom in the Wheat Ridge complex, which is supported by HUD, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and serves low-income seniors.

“I’d been on that list for three years. But we always thought I couldn’t afford it,” Peyton said.

In the wake of the fire she took what was available in Wheat Ridge, a two-bedroom, more than she needs. Other children, including a daughter who lives in Alaska, will pitch in on the rent.

“With three of us helping, we can make it work,” Morsman said, adding that at a one-bedroom might become available later and that at least the utilities are included in the new rent.

Peyton once worked on electronic systems for Lockheed Martin and has been a housekeeper in hotels and private homes. To secure the Wheat Ridge apartment she needed a letter from the  Social Security Administration attesting to her $1,100 monthly income, of which $226 is deducted for Medicare. The Wheat Ridge landlord required the children sign documents  pledging to help with the rent.

“It’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through,” Morsman said.

Babyak, the social worker and disaster aftermath specialist, said what Peyton and her family did makes sense.

“You have to grab what you can and then you can find your forever home once you’re settled,” she said.

Speaking generally, Babyak said, “I would predict in a year people will be on home No. 2. They still will be recovering from the financial ruin. I’m not sure how well their mental health will be.”

Finding a new home seems like the end of a struggle. But family, friends and others who have rallied to around those displaced from the Windermere will need to continue to provide support once people are in new housing.

Babyak said: “That would be the point I would say they need you more.”

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