Some tenants homeless after city empties Vegas Block
Concord Fire Marshall Sean Brown shows the judge the conditions inside the main lobby of the Vegas building Friday morning. The ceiling had studs exposed and wires were hanging down.
Shannon Gibson shows Aaron Ericson where a hotel is where she said they could go this evening after they left the Vegas building Friday as Gibson's son Gage Perron looks. Aaron holds his son Leif, 2 as his girlfriend Lisa Richards listens on Main Street.
Dale Strout smokes a cigarette after packing up his belongs at the Vegas building Friday morning. Strout signed a lease in February but was greeted by five police officers Thursday afternoon telling him he had to leave by noon Friday. "I'm too old for this s***," said Strout.
Concord Fire Marshall Sean Brown goes over his notes before leading a group through the Vegas building Friday after a judge wanted to see all the violations for himself.
The missing plumbing fixtures have created penetrations in the rated fire and smoke separation.
Missing sprinkler main piping. This is a wet sprinkler system. This sprinkler main has been cut off from water the water supply somewhere in the building.
With a sigh, Ramona Benvenutti leaned against the brick wall outside the Vegas Block yesterday afternoon.
Her dark hair, streaked with gray, was pulled back into a bun. Her weary eyes scanned North Main Street for her cab.
“I just can’t wait to get to the hotel and lay down,” Benvenutti, 68, said.
Benvenutti was among the tenants evicted from the Vegas Block yesterday afternoon because Concord officials deemed the building unlivable. Due to a last-minute court order, she was also one of the few tenants who secured a few nights in a hotel while she looks for a new home.
But many displaced Vegas Block residents walked away from their apartments yesterday without the benefit of that emergency aid and with nowhere else to go, and Benvenutti herself only has three days to find a place to live.
“I hope they never ask me where I came from,” Benvenutti said.
Remi Hinxhia bought the blighted Vegas Block at a foreclosure auction in June. At his request, city staff conducted an inspection of the Vegas Block on Wednesday. When city Fire Marshal Sean Brown found the building in violation of 12 different sections of the fire code, he informed Hinxhia it needed to be vacated almost immediately. The violations included a faulty fire escape, holes in the walls, broken fire doors and missing smoke detectors. Most seriously, part of the sprinkler system had been disconnected on the first floor.
On Thursday afternoon, city officials posted official notices on the doors inside and outside the Vegas Building. The tenants had 24 hours to move out. Hoping for more time, attorneys Stephanie Bray and Elliot Berry from New Hampshire Legal Assistance filed an emergency complaint on behalf of three tenants in Concord’s district court yesterday morning.
The building’s residents are low-income and precariously housed, they said. They risked homelessness if kicked out. It is unclear how many residents live in the roughly 30 apartments because many do not have leases.
“What I am imploring the court to do is simply reverse the (eviction) order for a short period of time. . . . I want to be clear, we are not asking for this place to remain open,” Berry told the judge.
Judge John Coughlin, along with the attorneys and some members of the news media, visited the building for a tour from Brown. The city’s fire marshal pointed out violation after violation, while the group walked through in Tyrex suits to protect against the bedbug infestation.
The judge, however, declined a suit. The tenants don’t have protective clothing, Coughlin said, so he wouldn’t wear any either.
Brown and Deputy State Fire Marshal Maxim Schultz pointed to the sprinkler system – and the places where the sprinkler system was missing pipes. They led the group past gaping holes in the walls of a first-floor retail space, and into a second-floor apartment without a complete ceiling. They jiggled doors and pointed to the spaces where smoke detectors should have hung. They walked through an apartment that had become a haven for squatters, trash and bugs.
The building has little infrastructure to suppress a fire and faulty systems to alarm residents of smoke or flames, they said. With so many simultaneous problems, Schultz called the building “a recipe for many disasters.”
“Our concern is truly warranted,” he said.
‘No places to go’
Even as the judge walked through the building, residents were scrambling to pack their belongings to leave. As the judge peered at piles of clothes and a swarm of bugs in one unit, Shannon Gibson walked by with her 2-year-old Gage on her hip.
“We have to move stuff out, okay?” Gibson said to her son, holding back tears as she pushed through the group of attorneys and officials.
As Benvenutti ushered Coughlin into her apartment, an orange cat darted under the couch. She proudly pointed to a smoke detector on her wall, but she said she hadn’t noticed the sound of a false fire alarm the night before.
“I didn’t hear anything,” she said.
A sullen man in a green T-shirt watched the group leave the building. “How are ya?” someone asked him
“I’ve had better days,” he replied, taking a drag of his cigarette near a “No Smoking” sign.
The judge ordered a temporary stay on the noon eviction order, and he asked the parties to find alternatives for the displaced residents. Most tenants continued to pack their belongings and wondered what to do next. Gibson, 37, and her son received vouchers for a few nights in a hotel from the city’s human services department, but her sister, Gina Summa, said she has ripped up a list of possible boarding houses in frustration.
“All of them said that they’re full,” Summa, 46, said.
She didn’t understand the need to empty the Vegas Block immediately.
“We been living here all this time,” she said. “All of a sudden, it’s too dangerous.”
Another couple, also with a toddler in tow, planned to seek help from the city, too. Lisa Richards, 39, carried kitchen supplies as she and Aaron Erickson, 35, left.
They had only lived in the Vegas Block for two months.
“We were homeless for a month and a half before we came here,” Erickson said.
As they left on foot for the city’s human services office on Commercial Street, Erickson was not hopeful.
“There’s literally no places to go,” he said.
The last resort
While Vegas Block residents scattered, a phone bank of sorts grew up in the halls of Concord’s district court. The city’s human services director, Jackie Whatmough, building inspector Lisa Salvatore, deputy city solicitor Danielle Pacik, Concord fire officials, Hinxhia and others called hotel after hotel.
Many were full or refused rooms to the Vegas Block tenants, but they finally secured rooms for a waiting cluster of five residents.
The judge ordered the building padlocked by 4 p.m. Housing and transport for those five would also be paid until Tuesday.
Hinxhia covered the bill, though the city will reimburse him for some of those expenses.
“We’re doing our best to accommodate all the tenants,” Hinxhia said.
“We don’t want anybody to be on the street, and that’s why I’m paying out of my pocket.”
Bray said she worried about residents who did not come to court and who may not know how to find housing assistance. As most services closed for the weekend, she could only recommend the state’s 211 hotline for housing assistance.
Bray and Berry will return to court at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday for a status conference with the judge.
“To me, this is the equivalent of a hurricane or a flood,” Bray said. “I wish there were booths. I wish there were Red Cross people.”
Kat Hutchins, 18, and her boyfriend, Kenny Robbins, 19, stayed behind to pack instead of going to court. They are homeless and had been staying off and on with friends in the Vegas Block. They called landlords and hotels, the city’s human services department and the state’s 211 hotline for housing assistance.
No one could help, they said.
“This is a last resort place,” Robbins said, looking up at the Vegas Block. “And the last resort ain’t the last resort anymore. It’s the street.”
Jacob Klardie, 54, bought a tent. But as night fell, he wasn’t sure where to pitch it to avoid being arrested for trespassing. He was still sitting behind the building with his daughter and her boyfriend, their belongings and their cats.
“We don’t know where to go,” he said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)