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Bronx Fire Survivors Lament City’s Failure to Disburse Aid

Some mornings, Nikki Campbell finds herself staring at the ceiling for a good half-hour. Inside her head, she sees her teenage children jumping up and down at the windows of their apartment, screaming as flames gather around them, melting walls so quickly that the paint breaks out in bubbles and black smoke fills the hallways.

“Ma, what do we do,” they cry out to her as she stands outside the building, watching helplessly. “Ma, the smoke is coming through the walls. Where are we going to go, Ma? We’re trapped, we’re trapped.”

The fire, which ripped through Twin Parks North West, a 19-story affordable housing building in the Bronx, on Jan. 9, killed 17 people, eight of them children, making it the deadliest in New York City in more than three decades.

A string of elected officials, at least at first, rallied quickly: Donations poured in from the community. Pledges were made. Free iPads were promised on television. Speeches were tearfully delivered at a mass funeral service for the victims, who all came from West African families.

But nearly four months after the blaze, which was caused by a space heater in a third-floor apartment, only a fraction of the aid promised by government officials has trickled down to survivors, who are asking when they will see money from a $4.4 million city-managed donation fund.

“Waiting for the money has been like waiting for Godot,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, who represents part of the Bronx.

Out of about 150 displaced families — some of whom had been sharing apartments — more than 90 have applied to move into La Central, a new affordable housing development in the South Bronx, according to data provided by the New York State Office of Homes and Community Renewal. More than 60 of those families have signed leases, while the remaining tenants’ applications are pending, a spokesman said.

Only 13 of the 118 apartments that had been occupied remain uninhabitable, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Some families plan to remain in Twin Parks, while 47 others are still living in hotel rooms as they weigh their options, according to the agency.

Some who refuse to return to Twin Parks say they are bothered by the lingering, pungent smell of smoke and are haunted by memories of the fire. Others are concerned about safety in the neighborhood of La Central; the building is a quick walk from the site where a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot recently while walking home from school.

Families are replacing items damaged in the fire, from furniture to clothing to household items. Some still have relatives in the hospital. Others are having to adjust to new schools and commutes.

Many say the aid process has been excruciatingly slow, bogged down by confusion and bureaucratic entanglements that have only exacerbated frustration among survivors.

“My question is, where is my city?” asked Ms. Campbell, 45, a single mother who was at her job with the Department of Parks and Recreation when her children called her from their home on Jan. 9, frantic and screaming about the fire.

The family lost everything. Now she and her six teenagers, all of whom survived, are living in two small rooms at a Ramada hotel near the building.

“The biggest thing for us is finding housing, finally some place to live,” she said. “I’m trying to get things happening but it’s insane. It’s crazy. The worst part is the lack of communication. You don’t know what’s happening. Nobody’s telling you anything.”

Ms. Campbell displayed a collection of text messages that she had sent to elected officials, saying they had all gone unanswered.

She said she had exchanged emails with a caseworker only twice so far, and had yet to be given a list of homes that are appropriate for her Section 8 status. She spent many days driving around to look at apartments, only to discover she was not qualified to apply for them, she said.

Some survivors say the presence of the blaze still lingers, both physically and psychologically, and that they doubt whether lasting repairs have been made to the building.

Gerald Petrie, who lived on the 12th floor, recently returned to check on his apartment.

“You spray Lysol on the walls, but after a while, it comes back out from the vents or something,” he said, referring to the smoky smell. “I don’t wish to go back and get bronchitis or some other disease.”

A recent visit to a sixth-floor apartment rented by Walter Williams Jr. confirmed the persistent smell of smoke, even though all the windows were open, and two large air purifiers were humming along.

In the stairwell, where Mr. Williams recalled having to step over three or four people as he made his way down during the fire, soot-stained walls were painted over in white. Yellow “Caution Do Not Enter” tape crisscrossed the entrance to the third floor, where the fire started, and a security guard sat in front of it.

A week after the fire, the state hired a private company called CVR Associates, which deals with housing vouchers, to help find new homes for displaced residents. Many of the families that lived in the building had been using affordable housing vouchers, which had to be adjusted so that they could be used in other buildings. The state also engaged with BronxWorks, a longstanding nonprofit, to provide caseworkers and disburse aid to survivors.

At the same time, Mayor Eric Adams and other elected officials were encouraging New Yorkers to donate to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which operates as a separate nonprofit to support City Hall’s priorities.

The fund received thousands of dollars in donations and services, from ordinary citizens, businesses, organizations and even celebrities like Cardi B and Fat Joe. It promptly gave out $2,250 per household, and then went quiet.

Volunteers and community groups stepped in, with their contributions sometimes outpacing the city’s in terms of size and speed: The Gambian Youth Organization has given $5,000 to each household, and the Muslim Community Network gave between $800 and $4,000, depending on the size of the household.

Some groups left food at the hotels or the building and packed bags of donated clothes, diapers and essentials. Unions helped out too.

Eileen Torres, the executive director of BronxWorks, noted the sheer scale of the disaster — and the number of people and groups that wanted to help.

“All of these organizations need to be applauded for the fact that at a moment’s notice, every single group that I know of tried to figure out, what can we do to support these families,” she said of the community’s response.

“This is a response that I’ve never seen from a group of individuals since perhaps 9/11,” she added.

Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a Gambian community leader who was heavily involved in the relief effort, echoed those sentiments.

Frustration grew among tenants as they tried to navigate a thicket of state and city bureaucracy to rebuild their lives. There was confusion among them over which organization was responsible for providing what.

In early March, DocumentedNY, the Bronx Times and other news outlets reported that many tenants were desperate for more assistance — while the Mayor’s Fund would not say how much it had collected. (Because it operates as a nonprofit, the Mayor’s Fund is not required to reveal its books and doesn’t have to register its contracts with the comptroller.)

After those articles were published, the mayor’s office announced that the fund had raised a total of $4.4 million after the fire, including money and in-kind donations, and that about $940,000 had been spent on cash assistance, food, burial services and other expenses.

It also announced that BronxWorks would distribute the remaining $3 million in cash assistance to over 150 families, and that the organization would receive $500,000 for ongoing support over the next year. Ms. Torres said that she understood tenants’ frustration and the extent of their losses, but added that each household had received about $10,000 worth of gift cards within a month of the fire.

BronxWorks now has six case workers helping families with things like furniture vouchers, replacing household items, mental health and legal services, arranging transportation to hospitals and enrolling in new schools. It is also hiring more case workers and setting up a physical space dedicated to Twin Parks relief.

CVR continues to handle survivors’ housing needs. A state spokesman said CVR was providing lists of vacancies and working with families to cover moving costs and broker’s fees. Some residents who did not have their own leases — those living with friends or family, for example — were given priority to get Section 8 for the first time, the office said.

Councilman Oswald Feliz said that his office had also been working “at all hours” to help tenants.

“The lack of affordable housing in the Bronx has frustrated our ability to promptly obtain permanent housing to every tenant in the 19-story high-rise,” he wrote in an email. “However, we will not rest until every tenant is permanently relocated.”

The aid process involves a complicated web of organizations run by high-level officials in real estate and government.

The Mayor’s Fund has long been dogged by questions about its quasi-official status. It was originally established by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in 1994 and became a fund-raising juggernaut under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. During Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, it was led by his wife, Chirlane McCray, who was criticized for absenteeism.

The current chair is Sheena Wright, the former head of United Way of New York City, who led Mr. Adams’s transition team and is now deputy mayor for strategic operations.

Hundreds of people were on the transition team, including Rick Gropper, a founder of Camber Property Group, which owns Twin Parks with two other companies. He served as a housing adviser during the transition. His business partner at Camber is affiliated with yet another development company, which has ties to BronxWorks.

The mayor’s office said that neither Ms. Wright nor the fund’s executive director, Daniele Baierlein, were available for interviews.

Mr. Torres said the purpose of running the Mayor’s Fund as a separate nonprofit was to allow it greater flexibility and efficiency. But instead, “the residents have run into a buzz saw of bureaucracy, the kind that you would expect from a city agency.” He called for greater oversight of the fund.

For the many residents who are starting over completely, like Ms. Campbell, more aid could be crucial. When she returned to her apartment three weeks after the fire, she was shocked. After steeling herself from the stench of a dead cat still in the hallway, she found many of her belongings had either been destroyed or stolen.

Still, she has tried to maintain a sense of normalcy. She keeps her nails painted purple, which matches her hair, bedspread and bathrobe. She jokingly calls herself a “Bronx boujie.”

But her hotel room is cluttered with boxes of secondhand clothes and other donated goods. While she appreciates the items, their presence underscores the sense of dislocation that hangs over her.

“Nothing is mine,” she said.

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