When fire burned through their apartments at Baptist Manor in Farmington Hills the evening of May 10, six clients of Jewish Family Service and Jewish Senior Life received immediate help, from finding interim places to stay in guest apartments at Jewish Senior Life residences to receiving counseling from agency social workers.
Local news sources reported that fire burned through the D wing of the Gamma building on the premises and displaced up to 148 residents. Four residents were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and minor injuries. Though it has yet to be confirmed by Baptist Manor management, residents who heard a blast suspect that someone smoking a cigarette in the proximity of an open oxygen tank caused the fire.
Beverly Goldberg was in her second-story apartment at the Gamma building at the retirement complex when she heard the smoke alarm. She grabbed her purse and cane and headed for the stairwell. The purse, the clothing she was wearing, and a few singed and waterlogged photos are about all she has left.
“Still, I thank my lucky stars that I was in better health than my other neighbors, who are in wheelchairs,” Goldberg said. “The apartment management leaves at five, so we were on our own to get to safety and waited out in the cold for nearly an hour before management came to let us into an adjacent building.”
Goldberg’s daughter Alyssa Tobias, a geriatric specialist social worker, said in a phone conversation last week outside the burned building, “There was just complete devastation.”
Residents had limited access to the apartments, but she salvaged a few mementos, including a life-sized cutout of her father, Howard, who passed away seven years ago to the date of this fire. Family friends rallied around Goldberg and donated gift cards, clothing and household items. Now, they are working with JSL to possibly transition Goldberg from a temporary guest apartment to a permanent one at Hechtman in West Bloomfield.
Just as they responded after the 2014 summer floods and this winter’s power outage, social workers with JSL and JFS said they are putting plans into place to resettle their displaced clients as quickly as they can.
“Our senior clients are our responsibility no matter where they live,” said Jewish Family Service CEO Perry Ohren. “As with other crises, we had our social workers on the ground helping our clients transition to either temporary or permanent housing and helping them cope with the trauma of being displaced by fire.”
The folks from JSL were also quick to step in. “These people lost precious heirlooms like wedding and family photo albums — those tangible pieces that make up a family history. Beyond helping them with regaining the physical comforts of a home, JSL had social workers on hand immediately to help our clients and their families cope with this traumatic loss,” Ohren added.
According to JSL Executive Director of Aging Services Barbra Giles, LMSW, ACSW, within the first six hours of the fire, the agency moved clients into temporary residencies at Fleishman and Hechtman. Another is staying at a residence in Oak Park and others have sheltered with family or friends.
Giles acknowledged that the experience to the client and their families can be distressing, especially when waiting to get word about a permanent housing arrangement.
“We are mobilizing as best as we can and, going forward, we have a clear strategy to secure housing for our displaced clients. However, when they are in the thick of things and still in shock from something like a fire, a client may feel overwhelmed by the process and the paperwork,” Giles added.
Alicia Rose, geriatric care case supervisor at Jewish Family Service, said just as in past incidents such as the 2014 flood and this winter’s power outage, the social workers following the fire went immediately into “crisis mode” to locate their clients at Baptist Manor, which included making calls to area emergency rooms to find clients who had no family.
According to Rose, restoration at Baptist Manor will take between six and eight months to reopen. The other wings sustained water and electrical damage and will be livable within two months.
“This fire was one of the larger crises we have had to respond to, and our young social workers did so with great intuition and compassion,” Rose said. “Baptist Manor housed many of our Jewish clients, and they have created a wonderful community there. But for some, who had wanted to transition into a Jewish Senior Life community, the transition is happening more quickly than anticipated because of the fire.”
Stacy Gittleman CONTRIBUTING WRITER