Weeks after fire at DC senior homes, residents voice gratitude, frustration

Some residents displaced by the Sept. 19 blaze at the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments are finally moving on to permanent housing.

WASHINGTON — The hallways of the Fairfield Inn on New York Avenue Northeast filled with senior citizens rolling brand-new suitcases behind them.

They were among the more than 100 residents displaced by a five-alarm fire at the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments housing complex Sept. 19 in Southeast D.C. They were given the suitcases by Edgewood Management, the company that managed the Capper complex.

“We wanted to make sure they know that they haven’t been forgotten” said Cindy Sandquist, president and CEO of Edgewood, which manages the Capper property for owner Urban Atlantic.

Many of the former Capper residents were grateful for Edgewood’s gesture as they try to piece their lives back together. Some remain frustrated about their situation since their displacement.

‘I’m on cloud nine right now’

Cherie Gibson was thrilled. Because along with a suitcase, she was being transitioned from short-term housing at the hotel to an apartment. She was in the process of getting her keys and heading to the apartment when she told reporters: “I’m very happy. They have taken care of us very, very well. They have treated us like we was in heaven! Yes indeedee!”

She shimmied as she joked that she was so happy she could dance: “I’m on cloud nine right now!” she exclaimed.

Ronald Starks El, who loved photography, lost cameras and files of photos of weddings, family events and more. Yet, he says, he remains positive.

“Something real special happened inside of me” after the fire, he said, adding he is filled with gratitude.

“I have my faith. And everything I’ve lost, it seems to be coming back rapidly,” he said. “I got a wonderful place in a wonderful neighborhood,” Starks El said, smiling. “Instead of me losing, I gained,” referring to help from family and friends.

Other residents were frustrated, impatient with the system set up by Urban Atlantic that assigned a building engineer to check their apartments for personal items.

Lydia Coltrane, who said she’d bought copper pots and pans and other items to ship to family abroad, wanted those items, as well as cash she’d placed in her apartment. But she’s been getting nowhere, she said. “People in the building here cry — because they won’t let us go” and pick their items from the damaged apartments, she said, “and that is wrong!”

Julie Chase of Urban Atlantic said the firm hired to gain entry to the units had succeeded in getting access to 53 of the complex’s 161 units. She also said the plan at this time is to rebuild — and that could take up to two years.

‘I lost everything’

Resident Daniel Cuthbert said his apartment was on the fourth floor of the Capper residences. “I lost everything,” he said. “I almost lost my life.”

Cuthbert, a diabetic, uses a motorized scooter to get around. He’s also on oxygen and is sometimes short of breath, but he’s philosophical about his loss and about living in temporary shelter.

“They’re treating us very good and just trying to do whatever has to be done,” he said.

Speaking of the coordination of services for all the residents, he said: “There are a whole lot of us, and it takes some time. Things are coming along.”

D.C.’s Human Services Department has been providing updates to residents on a weekly basis.

Larry Handerhan, chief of staff for the department, said each resident has a case manager that works with them to get the assistance they need.

“The perspective of the residents is amazing,” he said “It’s a privilege to work with people who have the attitude and the resilience that they have.”

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