June 24--The early-morning fire was one of Marysville's worst-ever -- a four-alarm blaze at a 40-year-old, three-story apartment complex for senior citizens and people with special needs.
None of the 43 occupants of the Windsor High Rise apartments suffered more than smoke inhalation, but the aftermath of the May 11 fire, sparked on a couch near an oxygen tank, underscores a troubling reality about Marysville's low-income housing for seniors and the needy.
Although response plans and training for a fire at Windsor had been in place for years, a plan for what to do with its occupants had not. The fire displaced 43 people, 22 of them quickly served by the American Red Cross. They moved in with relatives or friends and have no pressing needs, said Julie Frim, a Red Cross disaster-program manager. "The community outpouring and support has helped them get on their feet."
But for 16 others, life has been upended. Eight of them are older than 60, six are disabled and two are low-income. The Salvation Army is working with each to find long-term housing. The remaining five people who lost their homes didn't need any assistance.
Since the fire, six Windsor residents have been living in hotels with the help of the Salvation Army, unwilling to move or unable to afford housing elsewhere, said Jodi Peterson, Union County program manager for the agency. "Some people are saying, 'no, absolutely not.' They're afraid to leave their hometown. They don't know any other option."
Others can't afford to move, she said. "The people who are needing that lower rent are waiting because there's nothing available."
The Salvation Army wants to help but can't afford to pay for housing indefinitely.
"I would argue that there probably needs to be more senior housing in the community. We're aging," Eric Phillips, economic-development director for the city and Union County, said.
Union County Senior Services and other agencies concluded the same thing last year: Marysville lacks affordable housing. The fire exposed a real need, said Dick Douglass, the county's senior-services director, who also is a board member for Windsor, which was the city's only federally subsidized housing.
"I'm not sure that any rural community is prepared for something like this ... to displace that many people," Douglass said.
He said the Windsor board is discussing "the possibility of creating more affordable housing units" since there are no plans to rebuild the fire-damaged property. Marysville might want to consider opening a homeless shelter, Peterson said. The closest are 30 to 40 miles away in Marion and Columbus.
"At least these people could have a safe place to be while they look for housing," she said.
Union County Administrator John Cunningham agreed that there is a gap in services. "Between senior and social services, we're trying to do everything in our power to meet their needs," he said. "We need to take a good and intense look at it. What can we do right now, and be prepared in the future?"
Union County Senior Services provides a variety of services through a portion of the county's 7 percent sales tax. But affordable housing is lacking for all ages.
And, Cunningham added, smaller communities are limited in what they can provide.
The economies of scale in big cities help absorb the needy when tragedy strikes, he said. "Just by sheer volume, they have a greater response capacity ... than we do."
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