ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — When Hurricane Sally hit on Sept. 16, it left a path of destruction in its wake. Apartments were especially vulnerable leaving many residents in Baldwin County homeless and looking for a place to stay.
That presents a challenge for many, but it’s even more of a challenge when those residents have special needs.
“We lived in an apartment in Loxley, but Sally messed it all up,” said Martha, a client with ARC of Baldwin County. “I didn’t want to leave, but they said we had to.”
Martha is one of 53 residents with special needs in Baldwin County left homeless by Hurricane Sally that were brought to ARC’s training facility located in the Robertsdale Industrial Park, built as a special needs shelter following Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
ARC Director Kathy Fleet said when Ivan hit in 2004, everyone south of Interstate 10 was forced to evacuate.
“At the time we had three residents living north of Interstate 10,” Fleet said, leaving about 90 residents with no place to go. Most of the residents were forced to stay at the Department of Mental Health facility in Tuscaloosa, remaining there for 2 ½ weeks following the storm.
“When we returned to Baldwin County, we started looking for a way to build a special needs shelter here,” Fleet said.
She applied for a FEMA grant to pay 75 percent of the cost of construction and with the help of the city of Robertsdale, the Baldwin County Commission and local legislators, including Alabama Rep. Steve McMillan, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner and U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, the Robertsdale facility was opened a year later in 2005.
The facility now houses a day program for 93 residents and serves as a shelter when storms approach the Gulf Coast.
“It allows us to keep everyone together,” Fleet said
Typically, the facility is used for a few days, maybe a few weeks, which is what Fleet and ARC staff were expecting when Hurricane Sally rolled toward Baldwin County on Sept. 15.
“We thought we would be here at most two or three weeks,” Fleet said. “What we were not expecting was that three apartment buildings would terminate 26 of our leases after being deemed unlivable. One of those apartments was completely destroyed and will have to be completely rebuilt.”
The challenge of finding a place to live becomes even more of a challenge when you are assisting residents who have special needs.
“Most of our residents have to have a lower level apartment that is handicap accessible,” Fleet said. “They all have to have assistance and the places where they are housed have to meet very exacting standards of approval.”
Most ARC clients living in assisted housing also live on a very fixed income, Fleet said.
“They were living in apartments that where rent was between $1,000 and $1,200 a month,” Fleet said, “but most of the apartments that qualify for our needs are more than $3,000 per month, which a lot of our residents cannot afford.”
And when you are competing against other residents who have been displaced by the storm, the challenge becomes even greater.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits apartment complexes from treating our residents any different than any other resident,” she said, “and when you have many other residents out there looking for a place to live, it makes it all the more challenging.”
But, Fleet said, ARC has been able to work with several apartment and housing complexes in the area and, while they are still living at the shelter waiting for housing to become available, so far ARC has found homes for 40 of the 53 residents displaced by Hurricane Sally.
“I do not know what in the world we would have done if the special needs shelter were not here and I think it’s fitting that Sally hit 16 years to the day after Ivan, which was what triggered the shelter to be built in the first place,” Fleet said.
When the training facility was built in 2004, it was the only special need shelter in the U.S., Fleet said.
“So many different regulations had to be met to get this shelter built, it really is a miracle that this is here for our residents,” she said. “We are so blessed to have this here available to use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year where people with special needs in Baldwin County have a program that they can come to in Baldwin County so they are able to live in Baldwin County and their families can come and visit them.”
Clients like Bill and Greg are looking forward to getting back in a place of their own.
“They said we had to move everything out,” said Bill, who was sharing an apartment with two of his friends at ARC. “I’m looking forward to having a room of my own. I don’t have a room of my own here.”
Bill can tell you every place he’s ever lived, right up until moving into an apartment of his own in Baldwin County more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve got all my records and I’m looking forward to having a room of my own so I can play all my records,” said Bill, who is particularly fond of Johnny Cash.
Meanwhile Greg is quick to point out that he didn’t live in an apartment, but rather was living in a house with friends from ARC. He is looking forward to moving into a new home in Spanish Fort very soon.
“We’ve been here more than a few weeks. We’ve been here over a month,” said Greg. “We had to move in here because of Hurricane Sally. I am looking forward to getting back into a place of my own. I like living on my own.”