Stony Point shelter's families hurting two months after Sandy
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Two months after Hurricane Sandy left Nina Brabham with nothing, the raven-haired woman sat in tears -- her eyes red and swollen -- on Saturday at the Stony Point Conference Center, the makeshift shelter she still calls home.
"Doesn't anybody get it?" Brabham, 51, said through sobs. "After 33 years of building this life for me and my kids, I've got the clothes on my back and the stuff that's in my room. I want to start over. I'm working double shifts to save money, but I can't start over until I have some place to go."
Brabham and her son, Anthony Jamieson, 12, are one of 10 families -- about 30 people in total -- still living at the center. More than 150 people have stayed there since the superstorm hit Oct. 29.
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Many have been able to move back into their repaired homes, and some have found new apartments. But Brabham, who said she makes $43,000 a year working with the mentally disabled, said she can't afford the $1,600 monthly price tags on two-bedroom apartments she has found around Rockland County.
She also has another son, Michael, 16 -- who has been staying with relatives -- and said landlords have turned her away from renting a one-bedroom apartment because she has two children.
"Everybody else got the attention who had homes to repair and places to go, and now we're forgotten out in the wind," she said.
Brabham misses the simple comforts of home -- her television, her bed, a nightcap after a long day at work.
"I want to be home in my own bed," she said. "I don't feel happy that it's Christmas or new eear's. I used to love Christmas. I would love to have that feeling again. This has been a year I don't ever want to remember. I feel like screaming. I want to bang my head against a wall."
The Stony Point Conference Center, a Presbyterian retreat facility that has 180 beds, has been left with the tab for about 60 percent of the Sandy survivors housed there who have been turned down for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance,
"We're trying to get as much money from FEMA as we can to break even," said Amy Dalton, a resident volunteer at the center. "If there's something we can do to help these families, we're doing it. We've had conversations with all these families to help them plan. We're not going to push them out, but we don't have endless space. Some people haven't been able to provide a time line yet, but hopefully in the new year we can get things rolling."
The end of this cycle for FEMA housing assistance at the center ends Jan. 12. Every two weeks, the center has applied for Emergency Shelter Assistance extensions, which have normally been granted at the eleventh hour.
But Charles Finney, 47, said he has been given the date of Jan. 6 to move out because he is not covered by FEMA.
"It's an emotional roller coaster trying to figure out where I'm going to spend the night, where I'm going to eat," said Finney, whose basement apartment on Ridge Road in New City was flooded. He made his way to the center about five days after Sandy and has been there since.
"After spending five grueling days stuck down there, I made it back up here," Finney said. "The inspectors came and gave a value of $1,450 to my life and sent me here."
In the midst of looking for a new job, Finney said he doesn't have the money to rent a pricey apartment in Rockland, with Social Services offering him just $400 a month for rent and $200 a month for emergency food stamps.
"I don't want to return to living off welfare," Finney said. "It's like a Band-Aid and it won't fix the problem," he added, looking down into a ceramic cup filled with coffee cradled in his hands. "I get the sense people have moved on and they haven't been reminded that for these Sandy victims, there aren't cookie-cutter solutions for these people here."
Even through the frustrations, Finney praised the center and its generosity.
"I'm very grateful that the Stony Point Center is sheltering me and keeping a roof over my head," Finney said. "There are some very dedicated people here and at FEMA, but some of us are just falling through the cracks. There's a problem with the system, and we need to take a careful look at it."
As their two dogs, a Pomeranian Chihuahua named Midnight and a shepherd pit bull named Amira pounced around a common area, John and Heather Lent watched their little girls play outside in the snow.
After their Stony Point house was damaged beyond repair, the Lents -- who are both out of work -- have been staying at the center with their three daughters: Allyssa, 14; Kayla, 9; and Bryonna, 7.
Three feet of water, raw sewage and oil rushed through the first floor of their home and tore three holes in the foundation. Heather Lent grew up in the house, which is owned by her grandmother. The family had filed for FEMA relief, but because the Lents' name isn't on the deed and they are considered renters, they haven't seen any of the money.
"Social Services offered us $800 a month for housing, but we're a family of five. We can't even find a one-bedroom apartment for that price," Heather Lent said. "My family doesn't want to fix the house and they won't give us any of the money. We're stuck."
The Lents tried their best to have a "normal" Christmas. They bought a small tree to put in one of their two rooms they occupy and were able to give gifts to their kids that were donated by Catholic Charities. Because the center's kitchen was closed that day, the residents got together and prepared turkey, mashed potatoes, salad and frozen pies.
"I really miss our house," little Bryonna said as she giggled and played with a doll. "I just want to go home."
Jesse Weant, 40, carried large plastic containers filled with belongings out of their room at the center Saturday afternoon. He and his girlfriend, Melanie Nelson, 35, and her two children, 8-year-old Angelina and 5-year-old Michael, were moving out.
"We're going to have a belated Christmas. We can't wait," Nelson said. "I'm going to miss this place, though. They've been great to us. They've taken care of us like we're their babies. As soon as the weather is nice again, we're going to come back and volunteer. That's how much this place means to us."
Nelson found a two-bedroom apartment in Stony Point for $1,500 a month. Their old apartment on Lowland Hill Road was destroyed by raging waters and later, with massive amounts of mold.
"Everyone really came together and helped us out," Nelson said. "There are a lot of people still in need here and I hope things can work out for everyone."