BALDWIN PARK — In the wake of recent fires, the city has opened a Disaster Assistance Center to serve residents whose homes were destroyed, a city spokesman said.
City officials are also waiting to hear whether Los Angeles County will qualify for state disaster relief to rebuild or rehabilitate damaged structures, City Manager Ralph Webb said.
The county, and therefore the city, will qualify for such loans if at least 25 people in the county have losses that are at least 40% uninsured, Webb said.
The Dec. 8 fire destroyed 29 homes and two businesses in Baldwin Park, leaving more than 140 residents homeless. Other fires that day ravaged eight homes in La Verne. The next day, another fire destroyed 15 houses in the San Fernando Valley.
By declaring a local emergency in Los Angeles County on Dec. 9, Gov. Deukmejian enabled the county to apply for state disaster relief. The state Office of Emergency Management will know if the county qualifies for state aid in one to two weeks, Webb said.
The Disaster Assistance Center, located in the Morgan Park Recreational Center at Ramona and Baldwin Park boulevards, is staffed by representatives from half a dozen public agencies, ranging from the American Red Cross to the Baldwin Park Housing Authority, Webb said.
The agencies are offering help with housing, food, replacement furniture and psychological counseling as well as other assistance, he said.
Until the center opened Thursday, fire victims had no central location to seek help, although assistance was available at two Red Cross service centers. In addition, victims found help at a private home on California Avenue and at City Hall.
On Thursday, the assistance center's opening day, workers were still hooking up telephone lines. Few fire victims showed up during the center's 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. office hours.
Business hours for the center may be extended to nights and weekends to meet the needs of victims, many of whom work during the day, said Emily Penfield, a city spokeswoman. The center's staff includes bilingual personnel, she said.
After initially focusing on emergency food and clothing, the American Red Cross has been concentrating on housing needs. The organization is offering to pay first month's rent and some security and utility deposits for fire victims.
The Red Cross is also giving victims vouchers for household items, such as beds, stoves and refrigerators. By Thursday, the organization had spent at least $17,000 of the $25,000 it had received from its national office to help local fire victims, said Rick Diebold, executive director of the Red Cross' East San Gabriel Valley chapter.
Housing needs are also being addressed by the Fair Housing Council of San Gabriel Valley and the city's housing staff.
If families cannot afford to pay their new rent, the city may be able to arrange federal housing subsidies for those who qualify, said Dorman Smith of the housing authority.
Victims who did not have mortgage insurance will have difficulty paying rent for their temporary accommodations while continuing to make monthly mortgage payments, Smith said.
Of the 29 homes that were destroyed or damaged, 14 were owner-occupied. It is unclear how many homeowners did not have mortgage insurance.
Some victims do not have insurance to cover living expenses while they wait for their homes to be rebuilt, Smith said.
Professional counseling has also been made available through community agencies, such as the Mid-Valley Community Mental Health Council.
At the Margaret Heath Elementary School, where 16 fire victims attend school, a school psychologist has been helping the children cope with the aftermath of the disaster.
But most residents are slowly recovering from the fire, and city officials hope the center will help in that recovery.
"It is quite a significant effort for us," Webb said of the city's disaster relief effort. "I think things are going reasonably well."
For more information about disaster relief, contact the assistance center at 338-1005.