11 emigre families finally resettled after S.F. church fire

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After losing her apartment of 10 years in a November fire, emigre Arsina Rabichev, 68, has finally found a new home.

She and husband Arkady spent weeks in limbo, staying at a hotel, trying desperately to find an affordable apartment or rare slot in another federally subsidized building for low-income residents.

"We were so exhausted from everything, we just wanted a quiet neighborhood," says Rabichev, who has moved to an apartment in Marin County's San Rafael.

The couple is among 21 emigres from the former Soviet Union who were displaced by the blaze that gutted the Saint Paulus Lutheran Church at 950 Gough St. in San Francisco Nov. 5. The fire also partially destroyed the Housing Authority building next door, at 951 Eddy St., which housed the senior and disabled emigres.

Like nearly half of the other emigre families, the Rabichevs were able to use the federal Housing and Urban Development vouchers they were given after the fire to lease a new home. The other families are now living in various low-income Housing Authority buildings in San Francisco.

At Thanksgiving, however, the situation looked bleak for all of the emigres.

The holiday found most of them still living at the Cathedral Hill Hotel on Van Ness Avenue — a temporary residence arranged by the Red Cross and Central Relocation Service — and desperately searching for landlords who would accept the HUD vouchers.

The vouchers provide the means to lease a two-bedroom apartment with a rent no higher than $990, a difficult find in a city known for expensive housing.

What's more, many of the homeless emigres were hampered in their search for housing by poor English skills and physical disabilities.

"It was hard to find spots for these families," says Vera Vesey, the Jewish Family and Children's Services case worker who worked to resettle the emigres. "They really persevered."

According to Vesey, the Mayor's Office and Housing Authority were also helpful in placing the 11 emigre families.

"They [the emigres] were given priority to get into federally subsidized buildings," Vesey adds.

Rabichev — who speaks the most fluent English in the group — spoke for her former neighbors, both in letters and meetings with city officials.

The Housing Authority not only gave the emigres priority for apartments in other low-income buildings in San Francisco, but also promised them that they would be able to return to their former building as soon as it is rebuilt.

Meanwhile, the emigres who were burned out of their homes early one cold November morning are working to rebuild their lives in new homes.

The Rabichevs and others are slowly replacing furniture and household items that were ravaged by the fire with the help of JFCS's S.F. church donation program.

Couches, beds, dressers, lamps and desks that were donated to the agency to help emigres settle into their first homes in the Bay Area are now being used to help this group try to take root a second time.

And while the Rabichevs wait for their former home in San Francisco to be rebuilt, they will be able to maintain contact with their friends, family and doctors in the city with the use of a car donated by JFCS.

"We are very grateful for the help. The car helps us to get to the shopping area and doctors. And if we have to wait, this is a good place to wait, with all the greenery in Marin," Rabichev says.