Kenya Anderson says she can handle being made homeless by the fire that claimed her building at Five Corners – she just can’t handle being “burned” by the City of White Rock.
Anderson and husband Michael Fry charge that White Rock’s city administration was caught flat-footed and unprepared by the fire; that it didn’t communicate well with residents to let them know what help was available to them and that it actively discouraged people from donating goods to fire victims by spreading the message – starting on the day of the fire – that all their needs were taken care of.
“For three days people were trying to donate goods and they were turned away,” Anderson, among the nearly 100 residents who lost their homes in the early hours of May 15, told Peace Arch News this week.
“I didn’t expect the city to hold our hands, but I didn’t expect them to impede our progress – they put up a wall between us and the people who wanted to help us. And they continue to do that.”
She and Fry – together with two pets – have been living in a borrowed trailer at Hazelmere RV Park on 8 Avenue since the conflagration that scorched the roof off the top floor condo they owned at the Ocean Ridge complex.
They emphasize that, like other victims, they’re tremendously grateful for the outpouring of support and generosity from organizations like Sources Community Resources Society and the Peninsula Pastors Network and ordinary people in the community who stepped up to help almost as soon as the first fire sirens were heard.
But she claims city officials have been slow to share information with helpers on who the victims are and their needs.
Peter Klenner, chair of the Peninsula Pastors Network, acknowledges that, in the aftermath of the fire, many “didn’t know what the actual needs were.”
“I was offered a list of all the tenants from the city, but the real issue was getting information to the tenants, what help was there, what to do with the debris from the fire – that information didn’t get through to residents efficiently,” he said.
On the plus side, Peninsula churches have since raised a lot of money to help victims, he said, and plan to announce soon how it will be distributed to them.
Anderson and Fry said they and their Five Corners neighbours – who’ve since dubbed themselves the ‘fire people’ – have bonded in the midst of their misfortune, kept in touch as they scrambled to find accommodations, and have begun to hold regular meetings to share experiences and support. Through this communication – and their own experience – they know that everything is not ‘fine’ with fire victims, who included renters as well as owners.
“Several of the women in the building have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – one has been hospitalized,” Anderson said. “I also know of a single mom with five kids who still hasn’t found a place to live.”
Even though they found themselves out on the sidewalk at 5 a.m., with pets in arms and nothing but the few clothes they could grab on their backs, Anderson and Fry count themselves among the lucky ones.
While they lost most of their possessions, and are steeling themselves to the idea their lives will likely be in disarray for two years to come, they had insurance.
They’ve managed to hang on to a sense of humour about their plight, Anderson said. But they’re rankled every time they hear that residents of the building are doing just fine – or continue to encounter the effects of the official line that donations of goods for fire victims were not needed.
“I’m going to a thrift store and the manager asks me ‘what are you looking for, dear?’ and I say ‘furniture – I’m one of the fire people from Five Corners’ and she says ‘I thought you people didn’t need anything – that’s too bad, I had a bedroom suite I could have donated to you, but I just sold it.’”
There are only so many times you can hear that before something snaps, Anderson said.
City manager Dan Bottrill told PAN Thursday that the city and Sources had begun immediate discussion on what could be done to help residents, but neither had resources to handle or store unsolicited donations of clothing and furniture. He said the city had to assess from a practical standpoint what assistance could “best be left with other organizations – partnerships are important.”
Renee Bertrand is another resident undergoing hardship – the consultant at a men’s clothing retailer is currently living in a former barn on her parents’ property and sleeping in what used to be a horse stall, she said.
“They’ve made it nice for me, put in a carpet and furniture – but it’s not like they were expecting their 34-year-old daughter to be back on their doorstep,” she said, adding that she is unwilling to run a heater at night because she is afraid of starting another fire.
While she, too, is grateful for “awesome community volunteers” who have helped her, she says she is finding it hard to recover.
“I had a beautiful home, I had beautiful furniture and beautiful things and they’re all gone,” she said. “I couldn’t function for the first week (after the fire) – and I had to put my dog down.”
Final straw for Anderson was when she received a letter from the city revenue services department that, under the circumstances, she sees as a prime example of bureaucratic coldness. The letter informs them that under provincial legislation, they can still apply for the homeowner grant while repairs and reconstruction are underway, provided they plan to reoccupy the property and it continues to be assessed and taxed.
“It doesn’t even say ‘oh, and sorry about your situation.’”
Bottrill explained the primary intent of the letter was to inform residents of homeowner grant options. “If the tone wasn’t providing some sense of the tragedy of the situation we apologize for that.”