Rebuild or relocate, tornado victims face tough decision

Hello from Cocoa
Dennis Parker's cat, Cocoa, greets him during a short visit to the house his family had to abandon after the tornado struck. Neighbors are taking care of the cat while the family stays at an emergency shelter on the north side. Inside the home, the ceilings are cracked and the basement reeks of mold due to flooding from the storm.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Many north Minneapolis residents uprooted by the tornado nearly two weeks ago are still searching for a place to call home.

City housing officials say they're working on a plan to match people who are now homeless with affordable housing on the north side.

Workers on the front lines of the recovery effort say housing will be the most dire need for many families in the weeks to come.

The Parker family had finally climbed out of homelessness when they moved into a rental house on Girard Avenue last summer. But after the tornado struck, they're homeless once again.

Dennis Parker, his wife, and five children have spent the past several nights in the gym at the North Commons Recreation Center. Parker said workers with the American Red Cross have helped the dozen or so families with some of their most urgent needs.

"These people have been taking care of us in terms of food and hygiene," he said. "But as far as housing goes, we're sort of independent. They've not been helping us with that."

Emergency relief workers say the task of finding new housing ultimately rests with the individual family -- but that's often the hardest part of recovery.

For the Parkers, moving back into their old house is out of the question. The ceilings are cracked, and a tree limb crashed through the roof. The basement still reeks of mold because of all the flooding. The landlord said it would be months before he could finish the repairs.

The Parker family has been working off a list of affordable housing leads. With no savings, no car, and both husband and wife out of work, the Parkers say they need every edge they can get to find a new home.

Hennepin County is providing emergency assistance to low-income people displaced by the storm. The money typically covers the first month's rent and the security deposit. Families first need to find a place, and then the county pays the landlord directly.

Beyond that, city officials and a host of social-service and housing agencies say they're working as fast as they can to come up with a long-term plan to help displaced residents.

"We need to have a stronger strategy there because we find that landlords may not be as cooperative as we'd hope them to be, and renters are kind of out on the street," said Scott Gray, the head of the Minneapolis Urban League, one of several organizations working help transition families into stable homes.

Gray said the North Side Community Response Team hopes to have a more defined plan in the next week or two.

Minneapolis Housing Director Tom Streitz said officials have identified about 50 available rentals in north Minneapolis that have been vetted by city inspectors.

"That list continues to grow, but we're going to be very conscious of making sure before we match anyone that we've inspected the unit, and that it's safe, decent and affordable."

Streitz said the city is keeping tabs on residents who are coming through emergency shelters and those who identified themselves as newly homeless when volunteers checked on houses after the tornado. The city will invite those families to an event tentatively scheduled for next Wednesday, where renters will be able to speak directly to landlords. In addition, the group HousingLink has put up a "tornado response" tab on its home page where displaced residents can search for available rental housing across the metro area:

The city doesn't know how many people have been displaced by the tornado, although it's declared about 150 homes unlivable.

The head count at the North Commons shelter has dropped off to about 40 people a night, while several dozen additional families are staying at the Drake Hotel and traditional homeless shelters. What's unknown is the number of people who are crashing with friends and relatives until they find new homes.

Public or subsidized housing doesn't appear to be an option at this point. The waiting list for Section 8 units has more than 10,000 people.

"Right now, the public housing program is essentially 100 percent filled," said Bob Boyd, director of policy and special initiatives of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. "Currently, we don't have vacancies to make room for other folks who have been displaced by the tornado."

The agency's first priority was assisting three families who were displaced from public housing due to the storm, Boyd said. Nearly 60 of the agency's properties were harmed in the tornado, with damages totaling about $750,000.

But Boyd said those folks who were already in the queue for either public housing or Section 8 could be bumped up the list if they let the agency know the tornado left them homeless. He said the housing agency is exploring other ways to help dislocated residents, but has yet to come up with a strategy.

"MPHA does not want to set up expectations, so we are being deliberative in our explorations about other actions we may or may not be able to take," Boyd said.

Meanwhile, Dennis Parker said he hopes he can start over, far from the wreckage. He and his family checked out an apartment on the east side of St. Paul. Parker said he's been meaning to find a safer neighborhood for his teenage sons.

"That's why our tornado came to our block. I think God tried to clean it up. That was his message to me. Things happen for a reason, and I think that was our escape to get away."