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The Crowd: SPIN and Families Forward help displaced fire victims

(File Photo)
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In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 12, fire ravaged an apartment complex at 15751 Williams St. in Tustin. The 40-unit building was a total loss, as the roof collapsed in the inferno.

The entire tenancy was displaced, left with little or nothing, only the clothes on their backs. Some 60 tenants were immediately assisted by the Red Cross and placed into shelter at the Tustin Senior Center. They remained there for a week, only to be displaced again.

What the news did not cover was the fact that this two-story apartment complex, some 50 years old, was designated as affordable housing. Some of the residents were new, but many had long tenancy. One woman reportedly lived there for 30 years, paying $200 rent.

Given such numbers it will be impossible to duplicate her financial picture in any available affordable housing. Given the seriousness of the growing homelessness crisis in Orange County, this fire potentially could have sent dozens of people into the ranks of the displaced and desperate living on the streets.

Private, nonprofit agencies dedicated to serving homeless families with minor children stepped in immediately.

Among the displaced in the Tustin fire, 10 families with children came forward in serious need. Two agencies, Costa Mesa-based Serving People In Need (SPIN) and Irvine-based Families Forward each took five families and went to work putting their lives back together as rapidly as possible.

In central Orange County, SPIN is the access point for homeless families with children who are in shelter or living in their cars in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Tustin, Westminster, Seal Beach, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

This essentially means that when any incident, such as the Tustin fire, renders families homeless, first-responders are instructed to direct affected families to certain agencies for housing assistance.

In the case of the aforementioned cities, SPIN is their access point for homeless families with children.

Serving homeless families with children for more than 30 years under the supervision of Executive Director Jean Wegener, SPIN staff led by “Housing Navigator” Kim Ortega placed four of the five families in permanent, affordable housing within 10 days, and the fifth family is due to be placed by month’s end.

“Meeting with the families one-on-one was a pleasure,” Ortega said. “As a housing navigator, I was able to assess what each family needed. The needs varied from housing, clothing, counseling, furniture to [coping with] anxiety over losing a vehicle lost in the fire and [needing] to get to work every day. Seeing the effects of the fire on these families was devastating, but SPIN is grateful to be able to help.”

One of the families had relatives to rely on to take them in. Funding from various sources, and from the generosity of donors, covered the costs of the families’ housing.

After leaving the Tustin Senior Center, the housing gap was handled with local motel placement, which is funded by donors and churches covering the temporary expense. The actual placement in permanent residences, which is a monumental challenge for agencies such as SPIN and Families Forward, given the high cost of living in Orange County, is known as “rapid rehousing.”

For the many generous donors in the local citizenry who support SPIN, Families Forward and other agencies involved in rescuing the homeless, here is a short insider view of the complex process of placing families in homes.

Once a need is identified, as it was in the hands of the Red Cross on scene at the dawn of the Tustin fire, the families are directed to what is called “coordinated entry.”

Specifically, in this case, five families were each assigned to SPIN and Families Forward. As an example, at SPIN, said families were then inducted in what is known as the “match meeting,” where each is assigned the appropriate case manager.

The SPIN team on this project included Adreanna Solis and Natalie Estrada, both of whom worked with and placed two families each. Case manager Ledeshia Gouber took the fifth family under wing.

Meanwhile, Kim Frazier, development director at SPIN, went to work seeking donations from all sources for clothing, household goods and so much more.

Frazier enlisted the Tustin Assistance League in offering shopping trips at the League store for the families.

“SPIN was pleased to be able to help these families with children who lost their affordable housing through apparent arson,”Wegener said. “The lack of sufficient affordable housing in Orange County made the task of helping these families find new housing quickly a little daunting. However, SPIN’s housing navigator and case managers met the challenge and four of our five families are already housed.”

The extended and unintended consequences of this disaster have far reach. One of the victims lost everything, including his car, which he, of course, needed to get to his job.

Sadly, another tenant, Patrick Ceniceros, 59, has been arrested on suspicion of arson, according to the Orange County Register.

Sometimes it seems that those with the least to lose suffer the most in such times. At least SPIN and Families Forward were front and center with a safety net for ten families with children.

To learn more, visit SPIN atspinoc.org and Families Forward at families-forward.org.

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