Seniors displaced by the Sept. 19 fire at Arthur Capper Senior Housing at 5th and K Sts. SE are beginning to move into new homes, the District Department of Human Services (DHS) said Oct. 25. DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services (DC FEMS) have not yet released the results of their investigation into the cause of the three-alarm fire.
The majority of the 160 tenants are currently living in two District hotels, with a handful in skilled nursing homes and some with friends and family. Most would love to return to the Capper building and will have right of first refusal. Although officials at the Oct. 25th oversight roundtable said the agency and the building owner are committed to rebuilding the development, the process is likely to take years.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has met with residents twice in the month after the fire, and said that they are in good spirits, but that there is still a lot of anxiety. “Front of mind for a lot of our seniors is getting out or hotels and into permanent housing,” he said.
“They want to be home with their friends and their community,” Allen said. “It’s going to be a long road leading to that place, but there’s a number of people, myself included, committed to walking that road with them.”
Allen is Chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee which held a Public Oversight Roundtable on the District response to the Fire on October 25.
In the month-and-a-half since the fire, a coalition of more than 28 agencies lead by DHS and the Office on Aging have banded together with not-for-profits to provide support to the seniors.
The Office of Tenant Advocacy supervises their temporary placement at hotels. Seniors meet once a week with case workers from DHS, and are provided meals twice daily by the Office on Aging.
DHS said that the Mayor is committed to securing permanent housing for the people displaced, but that needs vary depending on household size and preferred locations.
At an oversight roundtable, a spokesperson for the DC Housing Authority said that the agency is playing a supporting role as Capper management company Edgewood Management and Developer Urban-Atlantic works to find long-term or permanent housing for residents.
“The long-term housing search process for households affected by the fire is well underway. At this time, more than 140 residents have been offered a unit and we are continuing our efforts to connect them to available housing,” said a spokesperson for DCHA.
Seniors may decline initial unit offers. In that case, the agency would offer another unit in a second round. 77 seniors have already accepted unit offers, he said.
In order to gain the security of permanent housing residents may have to move out of the Navy Yard neighborhood. A DCHA spokesperson said that there is a total of 171 units currently in a pool to offer tenants. Of those, 26 units are located in northwest, 20 in northeast, five in southwest, and 26 in southeast, though not necessarily near the Navy yard neighborhood where Capper was.
Anita Bonds (Councilmember-at-Large, D) expressed concern about access to resources for seniors accepting units in the Residences at Hayes (5201 Hayes St. NE), which she said was located far from services and grocery. The representative said that DCHA “wants to continue as much as possible the home that they knew.”
President of the Arthur Capper Tenant Association Armanda Taylor said many of her neighbors have already been assigned to new apartments and more will leave before the end of the month, but many of these new living situations are not necessarily in senior housing. “We miss our handicapped bathrooms and the railing in the hallways,” said Taylor. “Going on to something new is a bit of culture shock for many of us.”
“When you’re old, home is important, but friends are more important because you start to lose a lot of them. We had that,” said Taylor, noting that the seniors would check on one another, eat together and talk together. “These things are important to seniors, more so than with young people, because we don’t have time to regroup,” Taylor said.
“Now that we’ve scattered, we’ve lost that. And we’re heartbroken.”
The Capper building is in the Single Member District (SMD) of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6D Commissioner Meredith Fascett (6D07). Fascett said the residents are working to recover paperwork and identification and deal with the trauma “They’re all very resilient. They have a lot to work through. They’re amazing people.”
More than half (90 of 161) of the occupied households lost everything, she said. While some tenants were able to salvage items, much was severely damaged by smoke or water. Few had renters insurance, and most will have to rebuild their households.
Former Capper Housing resident Carolyn Eaves testified at the Oct. 25 hearing, saying that she did not understand why officials were unable to retrieve possessions from her unit. “When I drive on the 695, I can see my apartment. The windows are intact,” she said. “It just doesn’t make good common sense.”
Eaves said that she asked officials to retrieve her passport and associated documents from her unit, but was told this was impossible. Apparently concerned about possible theft, she said she doesn’t want to see her possessions on eBay or Craigslist. “I had some cool things,” she said.
Taylor said that while such a fire would be devastating for anyone, it hits seniors particularly hard because so much was lost. “We all want what we’ve had, because the past is important when you’re old,” she said.
“Most of us have lost things that cannot be replaced –that’s the hardest part,” Taylor said. She references her wedding albums and the photographs of her dearly departed husband, and childhood photos of her grown children, one of whom she lost to domestic violence.
Fascett said that transportation for the seniors is being provided by Capitol Hill Village, a non-profit dedicated to aging in place. Clothing donations have been provided by charitable non-profit A Wider Circle. The latter organization will also help provide basics once the seniors have permanent housing, although they will still have to acquire items like toasters or pots and pans, Fascett said.
To help seniors meet their needs, Commissioner Fascett partnered with the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF) to accept contributions to the Arthur Capper Senior Fund (ACSF). A spokesperson for DHS said that the agency had found the fund to be a useful way to focus community giving, and that they had been directing people to the website.
“100 percent of every donation will go directly to Capper Seniors,” she said. CHCF will reimburse the transaction fees to the fund. The Red Cross will aid in administering and disbursing the funds to residents.
The Near Southeast Community (NSC) Partners are also accepting donations for the Capper Seniors. President Bruce DarConte lives across the street and was one of the first on the scene of the fire.
He said the organization has worked with Capper seniors over the years, providing them with tax preparation classes and transportation assistance. In the aftermath of the fire, NSCP helped provide supplies for displaced seniors spending the night at Greenleaf Community Center.
“We were there for them yesterday, and we’ll be there for them tomorrow,” he said. “They’re a big part of our community and they need to come back.”
DarConte said the organization will assess what the needs of the seniors are once they are placed and use the donated funds to ensure they are met.
When We Really Needed Them, They Showed Up
Taylor said the community response has been tremendous. She mentions the efficiency of the Red Cross, and the assistance provided by the US Marines who rushed in to help seniors out of the burning building. She said she can’t say enough about the neighbors, many of whom are still calling to check up on the seniors in their hotels. “When we really needed them, they showed up.”
The city has also been doing a good job, she said. “We all know the buck doesn’t stop anywhere in the District. This time the buck stopped,” Taylor said. “The Mayor stepped up to the plate.” While there have been a few glitches, she says that for the most part everything has working efficiently.
Taylor says the trauma and the heartbreak of the fire will always be with residents. But the response to this disaster illustrates the reason the District should be thought of as a city of love.
“Here, if you need help, it’s always here,” she said. “DC does take care of its own, and that a good thing.”
Learn more about the CHCF and donate to the Arthur Capper Senior Fund by visiting https://www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com/; learn about NSC Partners and their fundraising efforts by visiting http://www.nscpartners.org/