Five Things About House Fires

You don’t want to know.

The unexpected house fire. Photo Diane Nilan

A family I know in North Carolina just suffered the disaster that most families fear — a fire wiped out their home. This family falls into the not-rich, not-at-the-bottom-poor category, like most families across the country. They are now devastated. Fortunately, no one was injured. They were able to farm out their smaller pets, but have four large dogs to deal with.

Another fire story from Maryland, a grandmother, her daughter and three grandkids lost their home to a fire recently. They have rotated through four motel rooms for the past month, disrupting their fragile stability. The WUSA9 news story said,

“Jackson provided WUSA9 with a ‘Move Out Statement’ from Gates Hudson indicating she owes more than $5,000 in back rent. The notice said it was due in full within 10 days. The letter even listed the date of the fire as her move out date.”

Back rent. Insult to injury. It’s likely going to get horribly worse before it gets better.

Worn out welcome mat. Photo Diane Nilan

Myths abound about what happens after a disaster.

Let me enlighten a bit.

1) Red Cross will help fire victims.

Yes, to a point, but not enough to ease the suffering. They can provide minimal assistance — typically paying for a few nights in a motel. The Red Cross gave the NC family $500. That will last about a week, with careful spending. Red Cross volunteers won’t help the family find another place to live. Not criticizing the Red Cross, but let’s understand their limits.

2) Others will help.

If you’re lucky. Depending on your family/friends, you might be helped a bunch, and get through this disaster without becoming entrenched in homelessness. Or, if your family/friends network is among the financially-struggling or otherwise fragile, if you’ve burned bridges and no longer have a decent relationship, you’re in trouble. Some families/friends will want to take you in, but their lease prohibits it. Your family will quickly discover couch surfing is no fun. You’ll wear out your welcome mat. The good news/bad news, this displacement qualifies your school-age kids as “homeless” and entitles them to additional educational services. Ask at your school.

3) Insurance.

Uh oh. The Insurance Institute reports that 37% of renters have insurance (in 2014). I’m surprised it’s that high. Insurance never covers what you think it will. People barely able to afford housing aren’t going to plunk down $300+ a year for renter’s insurance. Depending on your policy, you might get enough for a month or so in a motel. Some of your belongings might be covered. But insurance won’t take the bite out of your experience. No insurance means you’re screwed. GoFundMe seems to be the go-to in lieu of insurance.

4) Local funds are available.

Wouldn’t it be nice? With the American Rescue Plan, communities might reshape their budgets to have funds for emergency assistance, but with the pandemic devastation, I’d not hold my breath. This is when people find out that public/subsidized housing is not readily available (read — 3+ years waiting list).

5) Life will return to normal.

I hope so. But it will be a tough climb.

  • The economic impact on those not endowed with wealth can’t be described. Motels are $80+ a night in most places. Add in food expenses. Cha-ching. Savings, if you have them, get quickly drained. Credit card balances skyrocket. You see where this goes….
  • Rebuilding your life — replacing those essentials lost in the fire — will add up quickly. The emotional loss — photos, keepsakes, personal records and documents, etc. — will leave a big hole.
  • Trauma will hit different people in different ways, but it will hit. Being crowded in a motel room without privacy won’t help. The fear of fire will likely linger a lifetime.

This list doesn’t even get into plenty of other issues. Pets. Vehicles. Identification. Credit issues. Finding replacement housing.

Being “Diane Downer” doesn’t make me popular, but having seen so many families over the years devastated by fires and other disasters, some becoming homeless, taught me a lot. My HEAR US videos will give you a glimpse into what families experience when they become homeless. This can happen to anyone.

What Can We Do?

  • The least we can do is open our eyes, hearts and wallets.
  • Vote for officials who understand that the American safety net has been shredded, and needs to be restored.
  • Support organizations/agencies that truly help families get through disasters.

Disasters shouldn’t cause widespread homelessness. But they do. That’s the real disaster.

To learn more about family homelessness, check out my new book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America. You can also watch my short videos that correspond with stories in my book.

Proceeds benefit my nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.