Help is out there for those in need

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 17, 2006

The story of Oliver Branch, or Ollie, as he is known to most, might be hard for people to believe.

Nowadays, something as simple as running water, a flushing toilet or a hot shower, well, that’s pretty commonplace for people. They have it, their parents had it, and in most cases, their grandparents had it. People can’t imagine what it would be like without it.

But Ollie, an elderly gentleman who lives on Ashley Avenue, does not know what it is like to live with running water. No faucet. No sink. No toilet. Just a tiny wooden structure propped in the back of his yard – an outhouse.


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Fortunately for Ollie, the folks at Building Suffolk, a non-profit organization devoted to eliminating sub-standard housing and homelessness throughout Hampton Roads, found him, befriended him and discovered his plight. His needs went beyond indoor plumbing.

Ollie was born to a slave family that was the property of the Sheffield estate, said Angela Koncz, founder of Building Suffolk. The Sheffield mansion, on Broad Street, now is owned by Mickey Boyette, but a clause in the deed required future owners to allow Ollie to continue living in the small house on Ashley Avenue and to do odd jobs around the mansion, she said.

Koncz said his home was in a pitiful state. Because he had no running water, he had no way to clean, leaving dirty dishes strewn about. For heat, he burned cardboard boxes in a little rusted stove, which, over time, turned his walls black with soot.

With financial assistance from the Community Action Coalition of Virginia, Suffolk Presbyterian Church, and an anonymous donor, Building Suffolk raised more than $11,000 to give Ollie what Koncz calls &uot;an extreme home makeover: Suffolk style.&uot; Building Suffolk volunteers, including Koncz’s husband, Frank, and Mickey Boyette, have been working on a new roof, new front porch, new windows, new vinyl siding, heating and air conditioning, a bathroom with tub, a kitchen with cabinets and sink, and upgraded electricity from 20 amps to 200, as well as taking out all of Ollie’s soot-filled walls and replacing them with insulation and drywall.

He has limited communication skills, but seems excited, if a little confused, by the transformation happening at his home. Earlier this week he helped chop down some shrubs so that workers could put up new vinyl siding. Of the improvements made so far, he simply said, &uot;It’s fine.&uot;

Charles Felder, development director for the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority said today most people probably find it hard to believe that anyone lives without plumbing or heat, but, &uot;Unfortunately, it is not uncommon.&uot;

Tyrone E. Sessoms, program administrator for the Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Project, or STOP organization, said each year he sees some eight to 10 applications for the Indoor Plumbing and Rehabilitation Program, which provides complete indoor plumbing to families and individuals who have never had it. While that number applies to all of Southeastern Tidewater, Sessoms said some 43,000 people across the state live without adequate indoor plumbing.

&uot;We were only trailing Kentucky,&uot; he said.

Three years ago they installed plumbing for two Suffolk residents in the Orlando area of the city.

Ollie’s story is, perhaps, an exception. But there are others in the city, such as Ruth Golden, who have fallen on hard times and are unable to dig themselves out.

Golden, who lives on Raleigh Avenue, used to clean homes for people who lived in the country and worked some at the Joyner Motel. She bought her small home in 1987, decorated it with ruffled curtains and printed rugs. But now, the house is in near squalor. The plumbing is broken, the bathroom sink fell off the wall, and the lovely rugs are covered in dirt.

&uot;It hasn’t always been like this,&uot; Golden said. &uot;I got sick and fell behind.&uot;

She said she fell ill about 10 years ago and now suffers from high blood pressure, a bad heart and severe arthritis in her legs. Her ailments have made it near impossible to get around, let alone work or clean and repair her home.

&uot;I manage the best I can,&uot; she said. &uot;I manage with the help of God.&uot;

By manage, she means she spends most of her week staying with and caring for an older sister, or at the Joyner Motel, not only because her plumbing doesn’t work, but also because she can’t afford fuel for heat.

Koncz said Building Suffolk is aware of Golden’s situation, but currently does not have the funds to begin work on her home, though they hope to find some in the coming year. However, there are other options for Golden and people like her, including the Suffolk Department of Social Services’ Fuel Assistance Program (see related story), which many people utilize.

Christine Bishop, assistant director of the department, said this year they received 1,831 applications for help through the program. Oftentimes, Suffolk takes more applications and serves more people than surrounding cities, she said. In 2005, for example, they received 1,902 applications and provided $498,187 in benefits.

This season, 1,850 people applied for Fuel Assistance, and Social Services will be issuing about $410,907 in aid. The benefit amount will range from $250 – $350 per household. By contrast, Chesapeake will spend $349,892, Virginia Beach $387,100, and Portsmouth $328,723.

&uot;We do think we’re reaching the majority of people who are eligible,&uot; Bishop said.

Felder, Sessoms and Koncz all said they and their respective organizations try to work together whenever possible not only to help people as quickly as they can, but also to maximize all of the available funding.

But the key is making sure the people who need help are aware that it exists. Felder said typically, the people most in need are not aware of who can help them, or they fear that if they get involved with a government program they could lose their house, he said.

That’s where family, friends, neighbors and churches can help – by referring people or pointing them in the right direction. After all, as Koncz said, it’s really about giving people a hand-up, not a handout.