The fast-moving blaze that ravaged the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments in Southeast last year left nearly 160 elders without a stable home. These days, they’re scattered across the District in new dwellings, without the camaraderie of their neighbors and comfort of their most prized possessions.
For Trinette Chase and other members of Seniors Offering Unconditional Love (S.O.U.L.), such an outcome reveals the need, now more than ever, for the movement they built within the Arthur Capper Senior Center in the years leading up the fire that destroyed their community and displaced their neighbors.
“We met in the community center the day the fire started. We had positive affirmations on the wall and did an [activity] where people talked about their best memories,” said Chase, a onetime resident of Arthur Capper Senior Apartments in Southeast, as she recounted the events of September 19.
That day, a fire in the attic spread throughout the entire building. forcing an evacuation and transition to hotels, and eventually new apartments. On the Monday following the blaze, crews discovered a man still living in the building unharmed. Five months later, the building had been demolished.
Standing at a second-floor window of the nearby Arthur Capper Senior Center, where she hosts a sewing class, Chase looked outside at the now-cordoned-off plot of land on which her former residence once stood. She pointed to the large patch of gravel marking the meeting space she and more than a dozen neighbors gathered the afternoon of the fire.
As she recounted the events of the blaze, Chase revealed that neither she nor her neighbors heard fire alarms.
She later reflected on what she described as the traumatizing experience of not being able to reenter the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments to gather her materials. Some key belongings included original African painting and sculptures, awards, and an uncle’s DNA sample with which she wanted to trace her ancestry.
Chase said similar situations have taken a drastic toll on her former neighbors.
“[Since the fire], some seniors have died,” said Chase, who now lives in Southwest. “They chalk it up to old age, but it’s being traumatized and losing all of your possessions. Yes, people survived, but what else? They never let us go back to identify what we wanted. It was very disrespectful.”
Members of S.O.U.L., a group formed as part of the Love More Movement after the murder of an Arthur Capper resident’s family member, have provided opportunities for residents of the Arthur Capper Senior Apartments to grieve without recourse and speak about other traumatizing life events that have wreaked havoc on their psyche.
For three years, S.O.U.L., with the help of the Community Services Foundation, hosted weekly events that featured guest speakers and allowed seniors to reflect on parts of their lives that brought them peace. The seniors who’ve entered this program have started a process to become life coaches through the Love More Movement’s TLC Academy.
As S.O.U.L. key organizers regroup, they revealed a desire to host mobile sessions for former Arthur Capper residents living in Southeast, Southwest, and even as far as west of Rock Creek Park in Northwest.
“The city spent a lot of resources immediately after the fire and provided the seniors with engagement activities, health services, emergency response services and relocation counselors” said Dr. Bruce Purnell, psychologist and founding member of S.O.U.L. “This was like a shot of Novocain because it helped them engage in life events rather than focus on the trauma and loss.
“The bigger problem is that when they got placed in their new locations these phenomenal services would also end causing them to reflect back on the trauma, this time without the Novocain,” he said.
For Purnell, the blaze and displacement exacerbated the unaddressed damage of the Middle Passage, enslavement, Jim Crow and the war on drugs.
“Now they go back to the baseline with the people around them,” he said. “They’re already in the most vulnerable conditions, just being seniors in public housing and having to rekindle the hope of that their ancestors had of the potential of this country is not an easy journey.
“Many of the seniors didn’t realize how much of a family routine had been created at Arthur Cappers until they didn’t have it anymore,” Purnell said. “It is S.O.U.L’s purpose to facilitate the healing and creating of everything that they are missing and more.”