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Problems remain for McHenry residents displaced by fire

Housing Authority's emergency fund may run out before building is repaired

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 11:51 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 11:44 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Richard Humphrey, 23, watches TV on Tuesday at the Woodstock motel where he is staying after his apartment building caught fire.
Caption
(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Cordero Johnson, 26, of McHenry takes a phone call Tuesday in his room at a Woodstock motel. Johnson was one of the 33 residents displaced by a fire at the Riverside Hotel apartment building in McHenry on Jan. 12.

WOODSTOCK – After his McHenry apartment complex caught fire last month, Richard Humphrey now spends most days alone in a Woodstock motel room.

He and 32 other people from the Riverside Hotel apartment building were displaced by the January fire. With no car or money for the bus, Humphrey and others have found it nearly impossible to travel back to McHenry for work.

And with the McHenry County Housing Authority’s emergency fund running out of money, and a still uncertain time frame for when the apartment will be repaired, some tenants might be forced to pay for their own temporary housing or become homeless.

The housing authority sheltered 28 people from the Jan. 12 fire at a motel in Woodstock, which has created transportation difficulties for people like Humphrey.

“I can’t get to work,” said Humphrey, 23, a diesel mechanic at an auto body shop in McCullom Lake. “I don’t have a license or a car. I’m used to walking to work every day, and now I can’t do that. … I’m not able to make any money.”

Humphrey said he can get to work about once a week if someone in the motel can give him a ride, adding that he doesn’t have enough money for the Pace bus. But he said the lack of communication from the housing authority and his apartment building owner, and the unknown time frame of how long he’ll remain in Woodstock, has compounded the problem.

“No one fills anybody in,” he said. “No one comes here and says, ‘Look, here’s what’s going on. This is how long it’s going to take, and when we get back this is what’s going to happen.’ No one pulls us aside to do that at all.”

Housing authority Community Service Director Sue Rose said the organization has kept in contact with the fire victims, providing residents with contact information and linking some with services when needed. It’s the responsibility of the victim to reach out to the housing authority with issues and questions, she said.

The housing authority can shelter the residents in the Woodstock motel for about four more weeks before it runs out of disaster funds, Rose said. She requested the Northwest Herald not disclose the name of the hotel out of privacy concerns for the residents.

“The initial estimate [from the building owner] was that they would be back in their units within a week,” Rose said. “I’ve been doing disaster relief for years and I didn’t believe that.”

But Rose acknowledged the building repair has taken longer than expected, and she expects the tenants to remain in Woodstock for at least three more weeks, and maybe longer if there are additional setbacks to the apartment building.

No one can re-enter the apartment until the building is up to code and the fire and safety alarm system is fully functioning, Rose said. Also, to make sure no one remained inside the building during the blaze, firefighters axed many of the doors in the apartment complex, 35 of which still need to be replaced, Rose said.

It costs the housing authority $5,300 a week to shelter all of the affected residents, Rose said. In less than four weeks the money budgeted will run out, leaving the tenants with few options.

“This particular fire has extra complications because the people who lived at the Riverside Hotel tend, for the most part, to have lower incomes,” Rose said.

The housing authority uses the Woodstock motel because of an agreed upon room rate agreement, Rose said.

“We tried to work with hotels in McHenry,” she said, adding that the cheapest McHenry motel would be nearly $100 more per week than Woodstock.

Like Humphrey, Cordero Johnson, 26, also could walk to work from his old apartment building and has had problems commuting from Woodstock.

“It was so easy walking back and forth to work,” he said. “But when you spend all this money on gas, it’s killing me. My car is falling apart because it’s so cold out here every day.”

Johnson was employed at a McHenry nursing home before the fire. The added cost of gas, plus sharing his car with his girlfriend, has made it difficult for him to commute.

“We burn a lot more money out here than we were [in McHenry],” Johnson said. “Then we had that fundraiser, but we didn’t get any of those earnings.”

The fundraiser, which was hosted by the Polish Legion of American Veterans Ladies Auxiliary and Corkscrew Pointe, was held two and a half weeks ago and raised more than $4,000. The money has yet to be distributed to the victims, which could be given in individual amounts or go toward additional days of housing, according to Pat Diehl, organizer of the fundraiser and member of the Polish Legion of American Veterans.

Diehl said she initially had trouble getting in touch with the housing authority about distributing the money but has recently spoke with Rose about potential ways to give the aid. Rose said it is up to the fundraiser organizers to determine how to distribute the money.

“I feel so bad because I know most of these people are aware of the fundraiser,” Diehl said. “I know they are waiting and waiting, and they are anxious to get some help.”

If the money from the fundraiser goes toward housing the residents, it would provide a few more days of shelter beyond the housing authority’s budgeted eight weeks. After that, their options are limited, Rose said.

“If it does run longer than eight weeks, there aren’t many great options,” she said. “They would have to pay for their own shelter or stay at homeless shelters. We did not expect this to last as long as it did.”

“I don’t want to sound greedy,” Johnson said. “I’m happy for the housing. But everybody in the building could use more [money]. That would help out every family. If this building was in McHenry, it would be a whole different story.”

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