21 emigres displaced by fire still seek permanent housing

Three weeks after an early morning fire gutted the Saint Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco, 21 emigres who were displaced are still seeking permanent housing.

The emigres were living at a Housing Authority building designated for elderly and disabled residents at 951 Eddy St., next door to the church at 950 Gough St. The Victorian apartment building was partially destroyed by the church fire and remains uninhabitable. All that's left are the charred remains of water-damaged books, furniture, clothing, and the objects that were slowly anchoring the emigres in their new lives.

The American Red Cross and the Central Relocation Service found the group temporary housing at the Cathedral Hill Hotel on Van Ness Street. By Thanksgiving, however, they will be homeless if they can't find apartments. So far, only one family has succeeded in relocating.

"These families are desperately scrambling to find housing," says Gayle Zahler, director of the refugee resettlement program at Jewish Family and Children's Services. The Jewish agency is helping the emigres find homes and providing them with counseling services.

"For these people, most of whom lived through World War II, this fire is yet another displacement in a life full of displacement and loss," adds Zahler.

Besides suffering a loss, these elderly and in some cases disabled emigres face other obstacles in finding new housing: they speak little English, and must deal with economic pressures.

Most critically, they are having difficulty finding landlords who will accept the Housing and Urban Development vouchers they've been given. The vouchers provide the means to rent a two-bedroom apartment at a maximum $990 monthly rent.

Landlords are reluctant to accept the vouchers, because they are associated with "poverty, drug addicts and the mentally ill," says Vera Vesey, the JFCS case worker who has been working to help place the emigres.

Vesey has also been looking into federally subsidized housing for the residents, working with the Mayor's Office, the Housing Authority, and local landlords to find low-cost apartments for the 11 families.

Vesey's concern is not only the impending deadline at the hotel, but also the toll their ordeal is taking on the families.

"They've all been traumatized. To lose their homes, their belongings — they're all under enormous stress. There's also the frustration over not finding new homes, and the language barrier," Vesey says.

Arsina Rabichev, 68, is doing her best to help the group communicate their needs to those who might help them. She and her husband, Arkady, 75, lived in the Eddy Street building for 10 years before the fire. Rabichev, the most fluent English speaker of the group, is serving as a translator for her former neighbors, helping them talk to potential landlords.

She has also translated a letter drafted by the group to the Mayor's Office and Housing Authority, stating the request for help with relocation.

"They said to mail the letter. But we are in an emergency situation and we don't want to mail anything. We wanted to go there," says Rabichev, who accompanied the group to both offices this week.

"They were very considerate. They gave us a list of housing projects where we could stay a few days until we find a place. It was nice of them."

Housing Authority officials also provided them with a "guarantee letter," promising that as soon as their old building is restored, they will be allowed to move back.

Rabichev, harried and rushed on her way to see yet another apartment manager said, laughing, "No one knows when that will be."

In the meantime, Rabichev and the others who have not found apartments say they are dreading the holidays.

"Thanksgiving is not at a good time for us. It postpones all the appointments and everything. Nobody will find a place until after. I hope in a few weeks, we'll all be settled in."