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Fire displaces Alliance for Shelter

A few remaining walls of the original structure of the Alms House still stand. The structure was destroyed by fire on Sunday. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Alex Bridges

The Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter continues to help the community, despite the fact that it's now homeless after a fire destroyed the historic Alms House on Sunday.

The agency had used the Alms House on County Farm Road in Maurertown to provide temporary shelter for homeless people and families. Its offices had been housed there since 1991.

Kerry Keihn, program administrator for the nonprofit, said Monday that the fire had wiped out their computers and paper records.

"Imagine your office is destroyed, you've got nothing," Keihn said.

The Alliance is attempting to retrieve data from backup systems. Keihn said a staff member had just performed an internal audit of their records on Friday.

Fire swept through the two-story structure built in 1829 to house the area's needy people shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday. A married couple sleeping in the building were able to escape through a first-floor window. They had come to the shelter less than two weeks before the fire, Keihn said.

"We had been almost full and thank God the other families had moved out before the fire," Keihn said. "There would have been four children at the house had they all been there."

The local chapter of the American Red Cross has put the couple up in an area hotel for three nights, Keihn said. Meanwhile, the Alliance is working with the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services to find services for the couple, such as counseling if they need help dealing with trauma suffered from the fire.

"Get them food, get them new clothes," Keihn said. "They have nothing."

The Alliance had been in the process of finding a landlord and a more permanent place for the couple. Keihn said the fire has forced them to speed up this effort. She said the Department of Social Services has helped them.

As Keihn explained, the Alliance tries to find homes for clients for 10 days or less. Federal and state guidelines limit the time a shelter can keep clients to 30 days unless certain circumstances exist, such as a danger of domestic violence, Keihn said. The households that left the shelter recently had stayed at the facility for about 30 days.

Keihn credited the landlords who work with the Alliance for the quick turnaround. A database of landlords they had used, however, was lost in the fire. The Alliance recently received a grant from the Shenandoah Community Foundation to help launch an official landlord network. Keihn said they hope to use that money to recreate a larger landlord database.

The Alliance can still offer its financial assistance programs. It should resume its intake programs and case management with new and existing clients by the end of the week or the beginning of next, Keihn said.

Of the programs, the shelter serves the fewest number of clients, Keihn said. The Alliance served 100 households in 2013, 13 of which stayed at the shelter.

"So shelter, although it is something the community is most aware of, is thankfully not our main way that we serve people in the community," Keihn said.

Homeless households fall into the "rapid re-housing" category, Keihn explained. The Alliance provides housing and related assistance for these clients.

"So thankfully we'll still be able to serve the community," Keihn said.

Alliance workers are looking to the federal and state government for help. Keihn said they plan to ask for $20,000 in emergency shelter operations and that she's checking to see if they can spend the money on hotel vouchers for clients. Then the Alliance could work on individual cases at the hotels.

The Alliance is in the process of looking for temporary office space to hold intakes and case management for current and new clients. It also plans to forward phone lines so staff can screen the 500 calls it receives each month. The Alliance will resume its hotline once the new phone service is established.

The Alliance asks that clients contact the organization at sassc@shentel.net until phone lines are set up to forward calls. Staff members are working with the agency's funding sources to see if the organization needs to re-file any case documents. Landlords who work regularly with the Alliance will receive written pledges until new checks are available. Landlords also should send their contact information so staff members can recreate resources for clients seeking housing.

The Alliance is accepting donations to help cover the costs as the organization looks for a new home. Donations can be mailed to Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter, P.O. Box 241, Maurertown, VA 22644. Staff members may not have access to the Alliance's PayPal account through the official website.

The Alliance also is looking for long-term office space, possibly free or at a discounted rate. Contact the Alliance at sassc@shentel.net for questions about donations.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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