Organizers announced a plan Wednesday to provide about 25 homes on property owned by Faith Church in New Milford, which they hope will spark similar efforts to help storm victims as the weather turns cold. They hope to have the families living in the homes by Christmas and plan to provide the displaced with food, schooling and other services.
"We want to get people out of harm's way," said New Fairfield First Selectman John Hodge, who is organizing the effort. "Winter is coming. There are a tremendous number of people without housing right now."
Hodge, a former resident of Staten Island and a member of Faith Church, came up with the idea and ran it by Frank Santora, the church's pastor. Santora, also a former Staten Islander, quickly offered four acres at his megachurch to put up the housing.
Santora, whose church has been involved in storm relief, said some of his relatives on Staten Island narrowly escaped their homes as the floodwaters rushed in and their neighbors were killed.
"We wanted to make a bigger difference," Santora said. "I felt like it was the least we could do. It was also in my opinion an opportunity to live out what Jesus said when he said love your neighbor as yourself."
The project is expected to cost about $1 million.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which has raising money for storm relief and providing other assistance to storm victims, is buying the homes. The New York-based foundation honors the memory of Staten Island firefighter Stephen Siller, who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We're ecstatic that we're going to be able to do that," said Frank Siller, Stephen Siller's brother. "It's unbelievable to think that somebody that is in an area that is so devastated can come up here and take them out of that and transform their lives and give them some hope. Just to let people know that you care, makes such a difference in people's lives."
The foundation plans to start taking applications from Staten Island residents Monday. If the number of applications exceeds the number of houses, organizers said they will have a lottery.
Half the two-bedroom homes will be for senior citizens and the other half for families up to four, Hodge said.
About 14,000 Staten Island residents had their homes destroyed or badly damaged from the storm, Siller said.
Organizers appealed for more support, noting they want to make sure the homes are furnished, and they hope to expand the program if they can. Hodge said another community has expressed interest in offering property for more temporary housing if more donations come in.
"So this will be the first of many of these kind of villages to get the folks who are in desperate need through the winter and at least into the summer until their homes can be rebuilt," Hodge said.
Hodge, who is director of operations for the Siller foundation, said everyone he's contacted has readily offered to help. Connecticut Light & Power, for example, agreed to provide utility hookups for free.
Santora said his 82,000-square-foot church, which includes an arcade room, a gymnasium and a coffee shop, will be opened to the displaced residents.
The program will bring residents from a densely populated city to a town of about 30,000 in the rolling hills of western Connecticut. Santora said they won't get good bagels and admitted the Italian food was suspect compared to New York, but he promised the new residents the best sauce if he's around.
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