Joan Leveen loves the Fourth of July.
Every summer she buys the latest festive T-shirt from Old Navy to commemorate the holiday. It doesn’t hurt that her birthday is a few days later, making for a string of celebrations each year.
But this July 4 was different.
After the fireworks had wound down, Leeven and her husband, Harold, were getting ready to tuck in at their rented Huntington Beach condominium when a neighbor knocked on the door warning of a fire and suggesting they go outside, according to the Leveens’ son-in-law Dennis Smith.
Joan, 73, was in her pajamas, her wedding ring left in the dish upstairs where she stores it every night. Harold, 76, was asleep on the couch.
At first, Joan didn’t understand what was going on. It wasn’t until the neighbor returned with a more urgent warning that she woke her husband and the couple evacuated the condo, Smith said.
“They grabbed one cell phone — Joan’s. She didn’t grab her glasses, didn’t grab her wedding ring, she didn’t grab anything,” Smith said.
Just before 11:30 p.m., a fire had erupted in a carport built into the structure where the couple lived in the 17000 block of Brittany Lane. Five vehicles in the carport were destroyed and the fire spread to three of the building’s five residences, according to Huntington Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Lopez.
Three additional vehicles in a carport facing the building also were damaged, Lopez said, and several windows in the neighboring building were blown out by the heat from the fire.
The blaze was knocked down at about 12:15 a.m., but no residents of the five units were allowed to return to their homes that night, Lopez said.
The Leveens’ unit sustained significant damage.
After the couple watched their home of 24 years burn, they went to stay with their daughter in Irvine for two nights, Smith said. Their renter’s insurance paid for them to move into a hotel in Fountain Valley while they search for a more permanent place to live. They also have rented a car.
Though representatives of the Red Cross gave the Leveens a $600 Visa gift card soon after the fire, “they don’t have 3 cents to rub together to make a fourth,” Smith said. “What they do have is what they’ve acquired through 51 years of marriage.”
The first thing the family wanted to retrieve was Joan’s wedding ring. It was one of her two prized possessions, along with a collection of Ron Lee clown sculptures given to her by her husband over many years, Smith said.
“I went inside their unit and there is nothing salvageable,” he said. “All the drywall essentially disintegrated.”
Fire investigators determined the building wasn’t safe to inhabit and that the cause of the fire will remain undetermined “due to the scene being unsafe to properly dig out for the investigation,” according to a statement Friday.
“It was determined that there was no feasible way to shore up the carport to make it safe for investigators to work under,” the Fire Department said.
The ring was not retrieved.
“They have nothing left but the clothes on their back — and they were wearing pajamas,” Smith said.
By Friday afternoon the family had replaced about a dozen prescription medications, including insulin for Harold, who is diabetic, Smith said.
But the struggle to find a place within their means will be one of many challenges. Their rent was raised only modestly during the 24 years they lived in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo, where they never paid more than $1,600 a month, Smith said. Social Security payments are the couple’s only source of income.
The Leevens have been on waiting lists for years in hopes of getting into a senior living community, Smith said.
“They’ve wanted to get out of their place, but they don’t really have the means to,” he said. With their advancing age and declining mobility, the two-story unit no longer suited their needs.
“I’ve been trying to spin [the fire] as a blessing in disguise,” Smith said.
This isn’t the first time the Leevens have lost their home. They moved into the Brittany Lane condo after losing their previous Huntington Beach home to a flood when a spillway overflowed.
“It’s hard losing everything you own, but having it happen twice, that’s insanity,” Smith said.
The couple’s renter’s insurance policy for contents is capped at $50,000.
“Our goal was if that policy pays out, we want to try and buy them a mobile home if that’s within their means,” Smith said. Their former rent budget would then go toward renting a lot in a mobile home community.
“They are awesome people, they’ve just never been able to get ahead,” Smith said. “For something like this to happen … we’ve all decided that we really are not going to let them go down like this.”
Smith set up a GoFundMe page hoping to raise $10,000 to help the couple get by while their insurance claim is processed.
“What we want to give them we can’t really come up with in our personal funds,” Smith said.
The effort had nearly reached its goal as of Wednesday evening.
“We never expected the outpouring of support that we are getting,” Smith said. “We’ve got people donating from France who picked up on it.”
The Leevens used part of their gift card to buy new clothes, and on Sunday, the family celebrated Joan’s 73rd birthday at Smith’s home.
“She had a fresh outfit on and was smiling,” Smith said.
Another cause for celebration was that Joan was reunited with most of her painted clowns, thanks to her daughters, who asked firefighters to retrieve them. They were able to get about four dozen of the original 60 to 70 clowns.
Smith and his wife are storing the beloved sculptures until the Leevens get settled.