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Volunteers aid NY fire survivors

New York church mobilizes to help hundreds following fires.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | YONKERS, NY | April 1, 2003

"We've had all levels of people involved. There's just been a real rallying around this."

—Rev. Debra Avery

After two major fires left hundreds homeless here, the Rev. Debra Avery didn't waste any time in mobilizing volunteers from her small church.

Yonkers was hit hard in mid-March -- two big fires in one weekend. The first fire, on March 14, killed two people and critically injured three others; about 500 people were evacuated and 200 were left homeless. The second fire came two days later, putting another 200 people out on the street. Both fires affected primarily low-income and blue-collar families.

"We stepped up right away on the day of the fire," said Avery, pastor of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, which has a congregation of about 80 people.

Avery's parishioners started working right alongside the American Red Cross. When the Red Cross set up a relief center at Public School 18, Avery's volunteers were helping serve lunch. And they took over the acceptance and management of donations, and moved the donation center to their church. They were assisted by several other community organizations.

Moreover, two staffers from the mayor's office spent a week with the volunteers in order to coordinate help from the city -- "which was immensely helpful," Avery said, "because there was a lot of red tape to cut through, and they helped us do that."

"We've had all levels of people involved. There's just been a real rallying around this," she said. "it's one of the poorest neighborhoods, one of the rougher neighbors, and its been kind of neglected. So it's a real blessing to see this kind of outpouring and support."

Avery's church has also set up a fund for people displaced by the fires. So far they have raised more than $25,000, including a $10,000 grant provided by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

"It sounds like a lot but it's going to go very fast," she said. "That might be enough to replace two households, minimally. Most of these people were renters without any form of insurance at all. These are people who pretty much live month-to-month."

But short of buying new homes, getting people into new apartments will also be difficult, since cheap rooms, even in Yonkers, are hard to come by. Generally, the cheapest studios rent for $800 a month, and two-bedroom flats go for $1000 to $1,200 a month.

"Finding affordable housing is going to be really difficult, it's going to be a real struggle," she said. "There's a lot of competition for those bottom end apartments."

The reality, Avery thinks, is that many of the residents displaced by the fires will simply leave the neighborhood. There are already plenty of reasons to leave -- such as plenty of street crime, including two fatal shooting in the same neighborhood in one year.

"If you have a choice, if you have an option, usually you don't choose our neighbor to live in, but that's one of the things we're trying to change," she said.

Making a big change in the community may be an natural result of the fire relief effort, Avery said.

One community organization, the Elm Street/Nodine Hill Community Organization was formed in reaction to the two fatal shootings, and this group has also been actively involved in the fire relief.

Avery hopes that the cooperation between local groups because of the fire can keep them working together to bring about a community revival.

"We want to clean it up -- everything from cleaning up the trash, to cleaning up the crime, to cleaning up the drug-use," she said. "It's a hard neighborhood that we live in, and there's a lot of work to be done there. If we can capitalize on that energy, we can really enact change."

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