MATTAWA, Ont. — Months after a fire destroyed parts of — and made uninhabitable — each of four attached rental homes in Mattawa, the victims of the blaze, including families who lost everything and were displaced by the early-morning blaze May 13, are still without permanent lodging.
The OPP has laid charges of mischief and drug production in relation to the early morning fire at the Mattawan Apartments against an acquaintance of a man who lived in one of the units. Sources close to the investigation indicate the flames originated in the kitchen oven of the unit and spread to the others around 4 a.m. while the occupants, including six children, were sleeping. The man charged following the investigation into the fire suffered life-altering burns.
See related story: Fire victim geared up and fought Mattawa blaze
Mattawa resident Jessica Papp has been assisting the victims of the fire by spurring a donation drive in the town of 2,000 and remains in close contact with the families. She says the turmoil over being displaced — especially over what the police have now charged as a criminal act — has left them thankful for the outpouring of help from their community but disillusioned with the system.
"This situation has continued to be very difficult for them, and, unfortunately, even though we have collected so many generous donations from members of the community, the families haven't had a chance yet to really go through or claim these items since they have nowhere to store them," says Papp.
Meanwhile, the District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board (NDSSAB) tells BayToday it empathizes with the situation.
"Understandably, this is a frustrating and difficult time for the displaced households, but every attempt is being made to help those who are seeking assistance with alternate housing, and within the parameters of the programs available," reads correspondence from DNSSAB.
Papp says some of the families have had to start paying for motel accommodations out of pocket while going through the necessary steps with the insurance companies before being reimbursed. (Editor's note: this article has been updated to reflect new information.) In an update on the living situation of one of the families, Nelson Jenking says he, his partner, and their young daughter have found a place to live outside the district and will be leaving town.
A lack of available units within the Nipissing District Housing Corporation, which oversees geared-to-income rental units such as the Mattawan Apartments and others, means it could be a long wait before similar lodging can be found close to home for the fire victims.
"For those who were impacted and wish to remain in Mattawa only — there are no vacancies at this time," says NDSSAB Communications and Executive Coordinator Marianne Zadra.
"Attempts to find private market rentals in the area continue, as does assistance locating housing in other locations within Nipissing District," Zadra adds. "Representatives from NDHC, DNSSAB and LIPI continue to be available to assist the displaced families who are seeking assistance."
NDSSAB advises assistance for individuals displaced by fire is available but they must make an application to the Rent-Geared to Income waitlist. While on the waitlist, NDSSAB says the Mattawa fire victims could potentially be offered a rent subsidy for a private market unit.
"They must be on the waitlist first for rent subsidies to be an option. Outside of that, households can secure a rental unit in the private market, and could be assisted via CHPI (Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative) for last month’s rent, moving costs, utility deposits, etc."
"All the families are struggling to find new homes to live in," says Papp. "One victim of the May fire commented they were supposed to be placed at the top of the list with housing to be relocated but haven't yet heard anything."
"Those displaced by the fire would be eligible to have their application prioritized under the Urgent Priority Status. The only higher priority is for people fleeing domestic violence," says Zadra.
The families are asking how long they will have to wait before housing is available.
"As an urgent priority, they would be housed much faster than those waiting chronologically, but Special Priority (those fleeing violence) are housed first. While there are very few Urgent Priority households waiting in North Bay, there are many Special Priority households in North Bay. In fact, the majority are in North Bay" Zadra explains.
She adds, "In Mattawa, there are very few Special or Urgent Priority households on the waitlist, but unit turnover is unpredictable, especially in smaller outlying areas."
According to the housing body, wait times are dependent on several factors — the unit size required as some are in higher demand; how many selections the household indicates (selecting more buildings increases the likelihood they will be housed faster; and, vacancy rates.
Correspondence from NDSSAB clarifies a typical sequence of events for families displaced by fires:
"Following the fire, families staying in motels would have been assisted through the Red Cross for 72 hours, while they began the insurance claim process. In this case, the 72-hour [period] was extended via assistance from LIPI (Low Income People Involvement of Nipissing). Following that, insurance would cover some or all of the shelter costs for a period of time. This is one reason why tenant insurance is mandatory upon move in with NDHC, and many of the other social housing providers, and also strongly encouraged to be maintained throughout their tenancies."