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The reality for tenants in the aftermath of the Iron Front fire

Iron Front Hotel fire
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Posted at 7:42 AM, Aug 19, 2023

HELENA — On Monday evening, the Iron Front property sustained heavy damage after a fire broke out in a void space of the building. Iron Front businesses and residents are struggling now to find a way forward.

About 30 people lived in the Iron Front building, but are now all displaced with very few options of where to live left open to them.

“It's been rough. We've been mostly struggling trying to find out where we're going to end up going,” says Carl Bench, a tenant at the Iron Front.

Bench moved into the building about two years ago after being homeless. He’s struggling to find housing after the fire. The lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists make finding a new home a real struggle.

“Sometimes they told me it’d be about three months, six months, even to a year,” says Bench.

With no place to call home currently, Bench is staying in hotels until he can hopefully find something more permanent.

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While the Red Cross has opened up a shelter off of Dodge Avenue at the Helena First Church, that temporary housing effort will close on Monday, having already stayed open much longer than usual due to the petitioning of United Way.

The low-income housing at the Iron Front is a first step out of shelters and homelessness for many residents.

For example, Josh Aldrich, who showed me around the Red Cross shelter, just moved into the Iron Front about 5 months ago after living in a prerelease center.

B.G. Stumberg, the owner of the Iron Front building, says that it may be at least six months before they would open up the area to residents again.

“I don't think we can do anything less than that, almost, just because of, unless we had a huge force of people in here that could clean it very quickly,” says Stumberg.

Stumberg, who’s owned the building for about two years, says the Fire Marshal said that a breaker didn’t perform properly causing a place in the electrical line to arc, creating the fire that began in the flooring.

The entire building has sustained smoke damage, the fire affected the 2nd and 3rd floors, and water damage affected the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors. JMacs Pottery wrote on social media, even with their insurance they might not be able to reopen due to the cost of the damages

A relief fund started by the Tri-County COAD, a conglomerate of various organizations throughout Helena, is meant to assist folks in rental assistance as they search for new places to live, a feat made only more complicated by the lack of affordable housing in the Helena area.

“We are already on a massive shortage and this doesn't help us out,” says Emily Mcvey, Executive Director at United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area.

As of Friday, the fund has raised about $7,500. They are asking the community primarily for money and not items at this time in order to assist the tenants in securing a place to live. Additionally, The General Mercantile has started a GoFundMe in order to help pay their employees and hopefully the tenants, as well. That fund has raised over $12,000 as of Saturday with a goal of raising $40,000 in total.

As for Carl Bench, he says he can only keep trying to find housing and keep his spirits high in the meantime.

“There's no time for rest. There's no time for anything else. I just gotta keep pushing and try to keep my hopes up,” says Bench.