A Future With Hope, the nonprofit organization started by Greater New Jersey to rebuild homes after Superstorm Sandy, completed its 200th rebuilt home in January thanks to the more than 10,000 volunteers and the many financial donations it has received. Few people understand, however, that the hard work required to restore homes and lives begins long before the first trace of construction or the day volunteers show up for work.
Behind the scenes in the early stages of the process, A Future With Hope’s case managers work directly with homeowners and help them manage complicated issues they face as a result of the storm.
“The homeowners have to deal with so many different issues at the same time, they can easily be overwhelmed,” A Future With Hope Executive Director Bobbie Ridgely said. “Our case managers not only have to understand the various problems a homeowner faces in trying to get a house rebuilt, but also understand someone who may be at the end of their emotional rope as well.”
Case management is the key to a successful recovery effort. They are the primary point of contact and work together with the family to assess needs, secure resources, and create a recovery plan.
“We learned early on that we had to be more than advocates for homeowners,” Disaster Case Management Director Liz McDevitt said. “We had to be a kind of expert on everything.”
McDevitt admitted she was taken aback when the vision was formed with the goal of rebuilding more than 300 homes and providing case management for 500 households. She now realizes how important those big ideas were before construction on the first house started.
“Bishop Schol said we have a big God and we have to think in a God-sized way,” McDevitt said. “I went home and told my husband we may have bit off more than we can chew. But we’ve been able to grow tremendously by taking baby steps and sometimes even giant steps. Because we were willing to take that step, we’ve become quite a force.”
Through the end of 2015, A Future With Hope has rebuilt 200 homes, provided direct assistance for 77 additional homes and has case managed 425 households for low income, disabled and elderly people in New Jersey.
Most homeowners working with A Future With Hope now have overwhelming complications and issues with their rebuilding efforts including insurance disputes and contractor fraud. Government programs are complex and time consuming. Mortgage companies can make things restrictive. Lifting requirements have been fluid and each municipality has its own set of regulations. The case manager works with the homeowner to help navigate all these situations and more.
Many homeowners have life experiences that complicate their situation. Some are experiencing divorce, illness or death. Others, such as those working in the casino industry in Atlantic City, have lost their job and income since the storm.
Case managers often are working with people who have given up and believe no one can help, or are angry with a system they feel has left them behind and doesn’t care anymore.
“I think it is difficult because this is their daily life,” McDevitt said. “They have to deal with this day in and day out. They are angry sometimes because they feel like it didn’t need to be this way.”
Ridgely understands the importance of what the case managers do.
“Now that we are more than three years after the storm, the people who have not been able to recover have the most complex situations,” Ridgely said. “We’ve had to be more creative in the solutions we provide and sometimes that takes more time and resources.”
In the last year, A Future With Hope has started offering homeowners lifting options and total rebuilds which use modular houses that are finished with volunteers.
“The early cases were some of the easiest,” Ridgely said. “We started by replacing a kitchen or a bathroom. At this late stage of recovery the people in need, need more.”
In the three years since the storm, the caseloads may have lessened but the time required to work with a homeowner has lengthened.
Since 2013, A Future With Hope has had as many as five case managers working with homeowners. Each has been trained by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and have participated with county long term recovery groups which form partnerships with other agencies to help people secure resources and recover from the storm.
Currently, A Future With Hope has three case managers including McDevitt, Jay Tunnicliffe who works primarily in Atlantic County and southern Ocean Counties and Andrea Wren-Hardin who focuses on Monmouth and northern Ocean Counties.
Case managers often lend a sympathetic ear and hear survivors’ frustrations before a survivor can start moving forward.
“We need to validate and hear them, but we also can’t get wrapped up in their emotion,” McDevitt said. “The first few times you talk to a homeowner, you expect them to be angry. I know it is not directed at me, but I had to be able to diffuse that a little bit and bring them back to where they can focus.
“My job is to give them hope.”