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Clothing Donations for victims of the Apartment Building Fire Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

Robert Cohen was in the Poconos with his family when the fire at Windermere Courts apartments, located at 48th and Walnut streets, erupted on Jan. 10. He watched his apartment complex burn down as it happened on the news.

Cohen received another important piece of information through the news — Windermere residents were being moved into the nearby Alain Locke Elementary School for the night.

Had he not caught the news of the evacuation on television, he wouldn’t have known where to be the next day to receive his security deposit, as well as January’s rent.

The way such security deposits were returned to residents is a matter of controversy. According to JB Farley, a former resident of Windermere, tenants were only given security deposits on a special condition.

“The management company just showed up and they were calling people in one by one to a room with them,” Farley said. “They had checks with their deposits made out, but to get the deposit you had to sign a liability waiver.”

College of Liberal and Professional Studies students and former Windermere residents Katie Shafer and Daniel Gerhart — along with two other Penn students who lost their apartments in the fire — are working with an attorney affiliated with Penn’s Office of Off-Campus Services to get their security deposits back without releasing liability.

The cause of the fire at Windermere has not yet been determined, but former resident Cheryl Robertson has an unsettling theory.

“If you ask me, I really believe that this was an intentional fire set by the owners,” she said, citing the suspect practices involving security deposits and the management’s inaccessibility since the fire.

“They wouldn’t talk to anybody and everything is just so hush hush,” she said.

Former resident Natalie Shaak had a completely different experience. Maintaining a good relationship with her landlords before the fire, Shaak was able to reach the management, and believes she will be receiving her security deposit shortly.

“A lot of those people are very angry, and they want to find somebody to blame,” Shaak added.

Robertson is also dissatisfied with the Red Cross’ efforts to help Windermere’s former tenants.

Having received a total of $150 in aid, as well as a $300 voucher for the Salvation Army from the Red Cross, she doesn’t believe the amount to be enough for her own and her daughter’s needs.

Dave Schrader, director of communications for the Southeast Pennsylvania division of the Red Cross, offers a possible explanation for Robertson’s complaint.

“There is a formula that we base the amounts we give to people on, and it’s based on what they lost, the number of people in their family, and what they need,” he said.

He further added that the Red Cross’ duty is to replace basic necessities lost for the victims of disasters, not to replace everything they owned.

“It’s not an insurance policy,” he said.

Farley, in contrast, was pleased with the Red Cross’ response.

“I was amazed that they showed up while the fire was still going,” he said, adding that he was also impressed with the speed with which the Red Cross assessed victims’ needs the next day.

As an organizer of several clothing drives — one of which took place Jan. 17 at Local 44, a University City bar located at 44th and Spruce streets — Farley has been happy with the public support he has received thus far. Donations were so great at Local 44 that the drive was shut down early because the organizers could not accommodate any more clothing.

Shafer received an outpouring of support from the Penn community, especially from members affiliated with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. An e-mail addressing Shafer’s loss was circulated throughout the Penn community, resulting in a number of personal donations.

She advises students who want to help victims of the Windermere fire to go to, a donation website moderated by Farley.

Gerhart has not been so lucky in terms of donations. He cites his large clothing size as being a factor in not being able to benefit from clothing drives.

Furthermore, with respect to on-campus aid, Gerhart said, “I really don’t know where to go in terms of where the clothes and donations would be.”

Farley is working on establishing a non-profit charity to raise money for the victims of the fire, but in the meantime, he urges laymen to donate to the Red Cross.

Schrader echoes this advice.

“The money that we get from donations is used to help folks in the next major disaster,” he said. “And unfortunately, there will be another one.”

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