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After Sunset Harbor House Fire, Family Ends Up Homeless

Hayes’ story exemplifies county’s ‘invisible problem’

By Alexandria Sands

Staff writer

At the same time Lori Hayes’ husband was being admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, back at home a fire started that has turned the family’s world upside down. On March 2 while Chris Hayes was being moved into a second-floor room at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, his wife Lori left to get a cup of coffee. As the elevator doors opened on her way back, Lori saw a nurse and Chris, crying, coming toward her. “Mama, our house is burning down! Mama, our house is burning down!” he cried out. Lori jumped in her truck and sped 90 mph all the way to Sunset Harbor where she found four different fire departments in her yard, all the neighbors outside, and her kids and grandchildren watching as their home was engulfed in flames.

“There’s no words to describe the feeling of standing there seeing everything just disappear,” Lori chokes out, more than three months later. “Everything you’re working so hard for and it’s just gone in a blink of an eye. It’s just gone.”

Lori had planned to pay her homeowners insurance premium that upcoming Friday, after she got her paycheck. Her house burned on Monday. “I was four days away,” she says. The fire department ruled the cause of the fire as undetermined. The Hayes’ daughter, Courtney Carroll, and son, Devyn Chaney, had started the laundry just before it began and the department agreed the cause was likely electrical, but the flames destroyed any evidence.

After the blaze American Red Cross was notified the fire had left the family homeless, so the organization gave Lori and Chris a Mastercard with $1,092 on it. The first purchases they made were hygiene products and changes of clothes. All the family had when they escaped the smoke was a diaper bag Courtney grabbed on her way out and the clothes on their backs.They booked a double-bedroom motel for a week and later moved into a two-bedroom manager’s apartment that had come available there.

Once the relief ran out, the Hayes continued to pay $282 a week - nearly $1,200 a month - to stay at the motel. Three months later – around the time beachgoers began booking rooms – Lori was told her family had been there long enough to get their house affairs in order, and that the motel would no longer rent to them. They had a little over 24 hours to pack their belongings.

With some of Lori’s savings and contributions from Brunswick Family Assistance, Brunswick County Housing Coalition and several individuals from Trinity United Methodist Church, the Hayes had enough money to purchase a camper. Inside, Chris and Lori live with Devyn and Courtney, and their grandchildren: a one-year-old named Sawyer and a four-year-old named Chevy.

When Lori isn’t working at the grocery store deli - and she works as much as the store will allow her - she clears the rubble off her property. She hauls aluminum and tin from the burnt single wide and sells it at a scrap yard to save toward rebuilding her home. While he’s usually a hard-working provider, Lori says Chris hasn’t been able to help much around the yard. He has a new battle occupying his time: cancer.

After his hospitalization for pneumonia the day of the fire he grew sicker, and has lost about 50 pounds since March. Doctors diagnosed him with cancer during another visit to the hospital about a month ago. “I have to worry about his health and is the good Lord going to take him from me,” Lori says. “Sometimes, it just seems like it’s too much for one person.”

BPH - a Godsend Through her trips to the Southport Oak Island Interchurch Fellowship Food Pantry, volunteers learned of Lori’s situation. She was told to come by the pantry more often and was brought home cooked meals by one of the volunteers.

Eventually, Lori’s family was referred to Becky Felton, secretary of the Brunswick Partnership for Housing (BPH). Becky has been in touch with Lori almost every day to offer emotional support and help connect her with nonprofits, like the ones that contributed to her camper. Becky also found a donor willing to fund a dumpster for Lori to dispose of all their items destroyed from the heat and soot. “I had about given up on humanity, but then these people just fell out of the heavens,” Lori says. “It’s a devastating thing to lose all of your everything, especially right after Christmas, and your son watching everything he’s got just go up in moke. “And then all of a sudden these wonderful people show up out of nowhere.”

The Hayes are an example of the type of family Becky’s organization, BPH, wants to help by establishing transitional housing in Brunswick County. The partnership is currently under contract to purchase a building on 11th Street in Southport. BPH plans to renovate it into several apartments for families who lost their housing due to circumstances beyond their control. Families would stay there rent-free so they could instead focus on regaining financial stability and finding an affordable place to live.

“If we had a place in March when this (fire) happened, instead of going to a motel and using a lot of their income to pay the motel, they could’ve been saving that money and getting into a home that much more quickly,” said Felton.

According to the North Carolina HousingCoalition, more than 16,000, or 32%, of households in Brunswick County are cost-burdened, meaning more than half their income goes toward housing. Those families could face homelessness if an unforeseen obstacle is thrown their way, such as a medical emergency, pandemic or house fire, all of which the Hayes family is dealing with right now.

Lori believes BPH could save lives for people in her position. “I’ve got my faith in Jesus Christ, but some may not,” she says, “and if they end up going through things and they have nobody, they could end up losing theirlives. I mean, they could just give up.”

From the ground up Lori refuses to admit defeat. She’s working little by little to achieve her goals – and rebuild their life. “God’s not going to put no more on you than you can handle,” Lori explained. “And I’m going to be one strong individual as soon as this is over.” Her plan is to put a single-family dwelling on the land. Although not the technical term, she refers to it as a “tiny home” because it’s just a 16-by-40 building with two lofts. She is working toward saving $3,000 from her shifts at the grocery store for the down payment. Lori assures not a single night will be spent inside of it without homeowners insurance. She will have the policy before they move in.

And when they do she will find someone going through something similar as her to donate the camper to, and says that will make her heart feel good. As for Chris’ condition, the family is awaiting instructions from Chapel Hill on the next steps in treatment.

In spite of it all, Lori says his health is her main concern. “I can have a house, but I need my family to be home.”

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