One year later: families left homeless moving forward

Dozen of families were left homeless after the July 10 downtown Sun Prairie natural gas explosion and fire. People spent hours each day after the blast waiting to get into their downtown homes, apartments and businesses.

Facebook helped spread the word of the July 10 downtown Sun Prairie explosion as residents connected with friends and families to see if they were okay.

The social media network is the way that Sunshine Place Executive Director Joanna Cervantes heard about the incident and immediately went into action, coordinating with the American Red Cross at its emergency shelter at the Sun Prairie High School.

“From that point on Sunshine Place was very hands-on with meeting the immediate needs of the families and the emergency personnel, to make sure that were taking care of [them],” Cervantes remembers.

Through the next days and months, Sunshine Place helped more than 51 families (105 individuals) who were either left homeless or worked as businesses that were destroyed or closed for weeks after the explosion

With the help of Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) funding and Sun Prairie Disaster Relief Fund donations, Sunshine Place assisted displaced residents with finding short and long-term housing.

“Finding housing that our families could afford was the most challenging,” Cervantes remembers more than a year later.

City of Sun Prairie officials reported that the July 10 explosion destroyed a large inventory of affordable apartments in the city, some with rents around $450 a month.

One-third of the 35 families displaced had to pay, on average $275 more a month to find a place to live, Cervantes said. Some displaced residents were able to find a place shortly after the July 10 explosion, but for others, it took months, with families needing to leave the city to find affordable housing.

“This is where our clients were at a disadvantage,” Cervantes said. “The incident was not their fault but they faced the repercussions of it. That was the hardest part.’

Over the last year, Cervantes said the people who were impacted by the July 10 natural gas explosion and fire have made progress in moving forward with their lives.

“Our families are resilient, despite the circumstances,” Cervantes said. “These families are strong and getting back on their feet.”

Sunshine Place continues to be a resource for some families that still have needs.

One thing that Cervantes learned from the July 10 emergency response was that not all residents knew about Sunshine Place resources.

“We think that everyone knows what Sunshine Place does, but the reality is that not true,” Cervantes said, noting that the organization has made a marketing push to explain is offered and how residents can get help.

In addition to the WHEDA funding and more than $212,000 from the Sun Prairie Disaster Relief fund, Cervantes said that private businesses and individuals donated money and household items to equip families left homeless from the July incident.

“Everyone just chipped in and helped where they could,” Cervantes said. “When we made the distributions, some families were in tears and so grateful that they had that support.”

Cervantes still keeps in touch with the families and today she looks back on the stress and frustrations--the “roller coaster of emotions” — that they have gone through in the last year.

“We saw the hardships that they went through but we also the emotions of joy and happiness when they were approved for housing,” Cervantes said.

July 10 for many of these families, is a date that many will remember for the rest of their lives.

“This is not a happy day for them,” Cervantes said. “It’s a hard day to know that it is coming up and brings back some of that trauma from last July.”

As the City of Sun Prairie marks the one-year anniversary, Cervantes shows gratitude for the assistance Sunshine Place received to helping people impacted by the July 10 explosion/fire.

“The community was behind the relief efforts from day one and until we were completely done,” Cervantes said. “ I just want to say a huge thank you for that support.”

It’s also a reminder to the community, Cervantes said, that there is a continued need to help Sun Prairie residents.

“This isn’t something that Sunshine Place just does during explosions and fires,” she said. “We have families who are walking through our door every single day in crisis who need help.”

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