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Housing Fair Held to Help Lewiston Fire Victims Find New Homes
05/08/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

As cash and other donations continue to pour in to the city of Lewiston to help victims of three recent fires, the focus turns now to finding nearly 200 people places to live. On Wednesday afternoon, state agencies joined with landlords at a housing fair to try to match up displaced residents with rental and other assistance. It's a tough and complicated job, but as Susan Sharon reports, victims aren't giving up hope.

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Housing Fair Held to Help Lewiston Fire Victims Fi Listen

Muhdio Osman

Lewiston fire victim Muhdio Osman, left, with an interpreter, lines up for housing assistance.

The housing fair was supposed to start at 1:00 pm. But by 12:30, the first floor hallway of the Department of Health and Human Services in Lewiston had filled with people looking to fill out housing applications.

Many are Somali refugees with large families. Speaking through an interpreter, Muhdio Osman says she has eight children who need anything and everything.

"My biggest concern right now is, of course, housing, but then once we get home, we are nine people. We had nine mattresses for instance," Osman says. "Getting all of that will be a challenge, and anything that the children need is going to be a challenge."

Her children range in age from 19 to three-and-a-half. The older ones had laptops for school that will be expensive to replace. But Osman says their primary focus right now is finding clothes. When the fire in their apartment building broke out Friday night they fled in their bare feet. They spent the first three nights in a shelter but are now scattered among friends and relatives.

Denise Lord of the Maine State Housing Authority says it may be next month before families like Osman's can start receiving rental assistance from the federal government and get into new apartments. "Our goal is to try to move families as quickly as we can," Lord says. "And if need to bridge between now and when the rental assistance kicks in, we're committed to finding solutions to help with that process."

To complicate matters for the city of Lewiston, social service agencies and the displaced tenants, one of the fires destroyed nearly 30 subsidized apartment units. Not only were they in good condition and up to code, but city officials say the rents were lower than market value.

That means tenants may not be in a position to afford housing that is available. So Holly Stover of the DHHS says there's an effort underway to try to transfer subsidies that property owners were receiving to tenants until more subsidized housing is built.

"Then the people who are displaced could take them and they could rent from somebody who has an available unit," she says. "There's always higher demand for affordable housing than there is supply. That's the way it's always been and I don't see that changing.""

Ashley MedinaIn the next room, Ashley Medina (left) fills out a housing application, hoping to find a three-bedroom apartment for herself and her two children. Medina says she tries not to think about everything she lost in the fire, especially family pictures and stories she wrote when she was young. She says her spirits are good because of the support of family and friends.

"They know that I work and take care of my kids, and they know my kids are my top priority," she says, "and have been giving back to me, you know what I mean?"

Before wrapping up an interview with several reporters, Muhdio Osman tells the interpreter she wants to say one more thing. "She asked me - did you tell them that we got a lot of welcome from all of the community? Our community, from the Somali community, the larger community, everybody has put a lot of support."

"We've been welcomed very well," Osman says. "(Everybody) keeps assuring us there's hope and everything's going to be okay."

Photos: Susan Sharon


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