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Displaced Chelsea Street residents still picking up the pieces

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 11, 2011 05:41 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

The collapse of 47 Chelsea St. and demolition of 45 Chelsea left 70 lives in limbo.

Nearly a month after a Chelsea Street building collapsed and an adjacent building was demolished by the city, about 70 displaced residents of that block, including several families with young children, are still waiting for their lives to return to normal.

“This has been very difficult,” said Noemí Diaz, who lost everything when her home was demolished. “I have not found an apartment, even though I keep looking.”

When a condemned building at 47 Chelsea St. collapsed under its own weight Oct. 14, it compromised the stability of the adjacent apartment house at 45 Chelsea, which the city demolished two days later, displacing four families.

For their own safety, dozens of other residents were ordered to evacuate buildings at 39-41, 43, and 53 Chelsea St.

Diaz, 44, lived with her husband and three sons on the second floor of 45 Chelsea St. She said her family was evacuated on Tuesday, Oct. 11, believing it would be a temporary move.

“Supposedly we would only be out of there for a few days, but now it's just ruins,” Diaz said in Spanish during a phone interview Wednesday. “Everything I owned, everything that I worked and sacrificed for is gone.”

The displaced have received support from the community and from state and local officials.

Ernani DeAraujo, East Boston coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, and Adrian Madaro, chief of staff for State Representative Carlo P. Basile, worked long hours to help the families find resources and places to stay, even giving them tours of available apartments.

DeAraujo and Madaro worked with landlords to get security deposits and prorated rent returned to the families, and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center provided care packages for families and counseling for expectant mothers.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino ordered the city’s emergency fund for fire victims opened to the displaced and guaranteed that any children who had to relocate to neighboring communities could remain in their current schools. Basile enlisted the state Department of Transitional Assistance to help families find new homes.

A half-dozen local restaurants donated food to help feed the families, and a fund-raiser thrown by Menino, Basile, City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, and State Senator Anthony Petrucelli raised more than $17,000 for the four families from 45 Chelsea St., who lost all their belongings.

“It was an outpouring of support from the community,” Basile said. “It was great to see how much people care.”

But the evacuees still face many challenges.

All are immigrants — more than half from El Salvador, with others coming from Colombia, Guatemala, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Many have limited English skills and most were unprepared for this sudden financial hardship.

Like all the residents displaced from 45 Chelsea, the Diaz family received $4,262 from the fund-raiser, but Noemí Diaz said it’s not enough to replace their lost belongings and pay for a new apartment.

Currently she, her husband, and their youngest son, 16, now alternate between staying with her mother and her sister. One of her older sons is living with another of Diaz’s sisters, and another is staying with a friend. Diaz said she sleeps on a mattress on the floor.

“I'm sad because I want my family to be together again,” she said. “But right now, we can't be. We don't have a home.”

The families displaced from the other four buildings were able to retrieve their belongings, but they’ve received less financial assistance. Gladys Orrego, who lived for two years on the first floor of 53 Chelsea St., said she had to fight her landlord to get a refund of her security deposit and prorated rent.

“I had to be after him, asking and asking to give us back our deposit, and half the month's worth of rent,” Orrego, 40, said in Spanish on Wednesday. She said her landlord tried to charge her family a full month's rent even after they were displaced.

DeAraujo said Aaron Daigneault, a local developer who presented himself as being under agreement to purchase 53 Chelsea from its current owner, had been less generous and cooperative than owners of other evacuated buildings. DeAraujo cited as an example James Zarrella, who owns 43 Chelsea and manages 39-41 and who housed his tenants in a hotel for a week and helped each find a new home.

But in a phone interview on Thursday, Daigneault, 37, described himself to a reporter as a contractor making repairs on 53 Chelsea St. who dealt with tenants and the city on the owner’s behalf. Daigneault denied that there had been any problems with the evacuees, saying he saw that the money was “all reimbursed in a timely manner” and had done what he could to help the evacuees, such as renting a box truck and helping them move their belongings out of the building.

Orrego said she has lived in three different homes since the evacuation but hoped to move into a permanent place this weekend. She worries, though, about affording the rent. Her Chelsea Street apartment cost $650 per month, but the new unit will cost $300 more.

“It's much more expensive. I don't know how I will pay for it,” Orrego said.

She said that due to lack of money and time, she has not been able to pay for a lawyer to advocate for her or her neighbors. Her hope is now placed in Menino.

In an interview on Wednesday, Menino expressed sympathy for the displaced and praised the community for the support it has given them. He said his office would continue to offer support to the families.

“We’re working with our Public Health Commission and our Department of Neighborhood Development about housing issues to help them get relocated as we move forward on the reconstruction,” Menino said.

DeAraujo said families from 39-41, 43, and 53 Chelsea St. would soon receive gift cards paid for with additional funds donated by the community and that all income-qualified displaced tenants, including Orrego, would have the first month’s rent and security deposit paid by the city’s fire victims fund.

“The mayor’s still doing his weekly meeting with the cabinet to check on the status of each of the families, has reached out to people personally to make sure they’re doing OK,” DeAraujo said. “That is going to be ongoing until we know everyone’s 100 percent.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow East Boston on Twitter: @EastBostonNews.

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