VALPARAISO — An ad hoc group of nonprofits and local businesses coordinated through United Way of Porter County has come together to house and feed five families who were forced out of their apartment building by a severe bug infestation.
The response has been ongoing since last week, after one tenant checked into Porter Regional Hospital complaining of symptoms from bugs in his apartment at 502 Union St.
Hospital staff reached out to the United Way asking for help in finding an exterminator for the resident, who could not afford to hire one on his own, according to Kim Olesker, the group’s president and CEO.
The United Way then notified the Porter County Health Department, which sent an inspector to conduct a wellness check at the building.
Inspectors discovered the entire building — a 2,800-square-foot home that has been converted into six apartment units — was crawling with cockroaches and bedbugs. The health department declared the building “unfit for human habitation” and gave the residents until Friday to find other accommodations.
That’s when the United Way began enlisting the help of more than 20 partner nonprofits and local businesses to help the nine adults, seven children and 10 pets that were facing homelessness. Most of the displaced residents are low-income families and had little hope of finding lodging they could afford in such a short time, Olesker said.
“In so many communities, they can put up a notice to vacate, but there’s never a solution as to where these people can go,” she said. “We had to react quickly because they didn’t have any place to go.”
United Way staff located a Valparaiso-area hotel that could take the displaced tenants on short notice. At the request of the United Way, The Times has agreed not to publish the name of the hotel to protect the privacy of the tenants.
Housing Opportunities, a local nonprofit that works to prevent homelessness, is assisting the tenants with their housing search. A key criteria is finding affordable options close to the V-Line, because many of them depend on the bus service to get to work, Olesker said.
Aside from lodging, another priority has been to meet the needs of the children in the group. The United Way has arranged for Valparaiso Community Schools to sort out where they will attend school this year, while Porter Regional Hospital and local clinics are coordinating healthcare for the residents, one of whom is a pregnant mother of five, according to Olesker.
Local businesses have also chipped in to help solve a particularly difficult problem — what to do with the four dogs and six cats that were living in the bug-infested building. As the residents were moved to the hotel, animal control officers brought the pets first to Vale Park Animal Hospital and then to Coco’s Canine Cabana, which is boarding them until they are reclaimed or adopted by new owners.
Area residents and religious groups have been generous with donations of food and money for the displaced residents, according to Kasie Tenbarge, the development director for the United Way of Porter County.
“The local church community is coming together to feed these folks,” she said.
As Porter County health officials continue to investigate the extent of the bug infestation at the Union Street house, additional questions have been raised about the living conditions there. Power was shut off at the building during the extreme heat on July 20, and the tenant who was forced to go the the hospital did not have a running shower in his unit, according to Olesker.
“The Hilltop neighborhood association was not surprised by the conditions (at the house),” she said.
The apartments are not designated as Section 8 or low-income housing, but the displaced tenants have told authorities the building's owner, Donnie Covington Jr., was charging them $600 rent on a month-to-month basis.
The Times was unable to reach Covington Jr. for comment by press time Sunday night.
United Way staff say one silver lining to the eviction is that it could encourage other low-income renters to report negligent landlords or unsanitary living conditions to Porter County health officials.
“We’re hoping this peels back a layer,” Olesker said. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you have to live like that.”