Beloit, WI — Linda Brown, as thousands of other mold victims, doesn’t expect to have a merry Christmas. Brown, her daughter and five grandchildren were forced to leave their apartment this week after the city of Beloit declared it uninhabitable. Now, they have little to call, “home.”
She plans to stay with a friend while her daughter and grandchildren stay with family in Chicago. Sometimes accepting assistance from family was considered passe, as now its not. “I don’t think they should’ve put us out until after Christmas,” she said. “I already don’t have the Christmas spirit, but damn. It’s bad for the kids.”
City officials said they had no choice but to vacate 32 occupied units at Countryside Village Apartments, 2101 Freeman Parkway, after problems with heat, carbon monoxide and mold in the units. The city has been dealing with problems at the complex for three years, said Tom Clippert, director of housing services. The owner, Barry Chernowsky of Chicago, has refused to keep the buildings up to code, allowing families to stay in units with mold and broken heat systems, Clippert said.
Chernowsky gave families space heaters to use as their main sources of heat, raising the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and fire, Clippert said. He sent unlicensed maintenance workers to work on the heat and told families they could move into units the city already had declared uninhabitable, he said.
The situation reached a crisis in the last few days. “It kind of came to a head now with the cold weather,” he said. “A lot of these boilers aren’t working.” Officials hate to put the families out at Christmas, but they also don’t want the families living in danger, said Capt. Bill Tyler of the Beloit Police Department. “If we woke up and found four kids had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, everybody would be saying, ‘What the hell? You knew about this,’” he said.
Unfortunately, millions are celebrating the worst Christmas of their lives. Much has a lot to do with loss of a parent’s job, losing one’s home, their livelihood, and loss of social service benefits.
Chernowsky could not be reached for comment at his Chicago office. A man who answered at the office said Chernowsky was on vacation in Florida, then hung up.
Officials originally feared the crisis could be worse. The complex has 112 units and until recently held 50 families, but only 32 uninhabitable units were occupied.
Many of the families are poor, which is why they continued to live in apartments that had mold and no heat, Clippert said. Several of the families don’t speak English. Which unfairly made it more difficult to find an entrepeuner to help people.
Officials estimated about 60 people might need emergency shelter, said Marc Perry, director of planning and development for Community Action. Local service agencies set up a shelter at Central Christian Church, 2460 Milwaukee Road, Beloit.
Those agencies know their work is just beginning. The ultimate goal is to find long-term housing for the families, said Teri Downing, a Beloit Housing Authority employee who was volunteering her time Tuesday. “Most of (the residents) are aware of the issues,” she said. “They want to move out, (but) a lot of them have limited resources.” Crisis shows need for emergency plan, officials say.
At one point, Marc Perry held three cell phones Tuesday morning as he worked to get food, bedding and shelter for 32 displaced singles and families.
He and Brad Munger, Rock County Crisis Intervention supervisor, were leading operations from an idle Beloit transit bus outside Countryside Village Apartments, 2101 Freeman Parkway. They would end one call only to dial again as they contacted anyone who might be able to help.
“This is way too much,” said Perry, who was working on three hours of sleep. Perry and Munger said the crisis in Beloit points to the need for a countywide emergency response plan for cases of large-scale homelessness. “I don’t think this is going to be the last (incident),” Munger said. “I think this is the tip of the iceberg.”
Beloit officials recently declared 70 units at Countryside Village uninhabitable, displacing 16 families. Tom Clippert, city director of housing services, said the landlord allowed mold and lack of heat to become a danger to residents.
Perry estimated about 60 people could need shelter this week. Service agencies set up an emergency shelter at Central Christian Church, 2460 Milwaukee Road, Beloit.
This is the second time this year that local agencies prepared for a sudden increase in homelessness. Officials feared more than 100 people in Janesville, Edgerton and Milton would lose their homes in April because the buildings’ owner owed about $30,000 to Alliant Energy. The owner worked out a payment plan, avoiding the power shutoff.
Munger and Perry think similar cases will crop up as owners and tenants alike struggle in the recession. They want local agencies to create an emergency plan that assigns a point person and helps everyone know his or her role in a housing crisis.
But every crisis is different, and it can be hard to create a plan that fits them all, said David Diestler, executive director of the South Central Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross. For example, the Red Cross takes the lead in providing shelter after natural disasters, but the case in Beloit fell under the city’s jurisdiction.
Still, he’s in favor of any emergency planning. “You can never plan too much,” he said. “We’re always trying to plan different scenarios.”
Diestler joined Perry, Munger and many others Tuesday at Countryside Village. Later, volunteers moved to the Central Christian shelter to accommodate the incoming families.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Perry knew he was in for another long night. “More than likely, I’m going to be sleeping at the shelter tonight,” he said.