Waupelani Heights apartment fire victims take advantage of service day, seek affordable housing

Shaker Abdulwhab and his wife, Gulten, wonder where they’ll find an affordable home to raise their 16-month-old child.

It’s been nearly two weeks since a massive fire destroyed the couple’s Waupelani Heights apartment and left them and 18 other families homeless.

On Monday, representatives from various community support organizations who gathered Monday at the State College borough building heard a recurring message.

“Affordable housing is the No. 1 issue,” said Romayne Naylor, emergency services manager with the American Red Cross in State College.

Naylor was at the scene the night of the July 4 blaze, and like others has been working since to find temporary or permanent living options, clothing, food and other necessities for the more than 40 people affected.

“The problem is there is no home,” Gulten Abdulwhab, a Penn State graduate student, said Monday, 11 days after the fire. “It’s the biggest issue in State College. It’s really hard to find a place.”

She and her husband are among the many who lived in the affordable housing who are now struggling to find homes they can afford in the State College area. And while they have received an outpouring of support from the community, housing remains a concern.

“I had a friend say, ‘I can give you a mattress,’ ” Shaker Abdulwhab said. “I said, ‘Well let me find a home first. Where am I going to put the mattress? I can’t put it in my car. It’s tough. It’s the first time I’m having this situation. I hope no one goes through it.”

Local and regional service agencies hoped to help address that issue during a one-day open house for Waupelani Heights residents who were displaced by the blaze at the State College apartment complex.

“You have to understand, (fires like this) take affordable housing units off the market,” Naylor said. “You have more people vying for fewer homes. Only a couple have said they found something. Most of them are saying they found something but it’s too expensive.”

Housing Transitions Inc. caseworker Colby Woodring said many of the former residents are having trouble finding affordable housing.

Woodring and others worked Monday to assess residents’ needs, and also to steer them to other agencies for help with food and clothing for themselves or their children.

Naylor said parents who have remained stoic through the ordeal broke down Monday when presented a few toys for their children.

“It’s a return to normalcy,” she said.

Naylor said 13 of the 19 families affected had come to the open house Monday, receiving help and advice and having an opportunity to start necessary paperwork and have questions answered.

“They are remarkably upbeat for the things that are happening to them,” she said. “I believe they are somewhat heartened by the outpouring.”

Interfaith Human Services was one of those groups on hand Monday to lend assistance. The organization provides, among other services, housing assistance for those going through tragedies like the fire.

“We’ve always been about helping neighbors in need,” said Executive Director Ruth Donahue. “There are dwindling (affordable housing) options available to them. That’s what makes this collective effort so important.”