Nonprofit groups, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money from corporate donations and other groups, are ready to help struggling lower-income homeowners repair damage from Hurricane Sandy.

The only problem, it seems, is finding residents who still need help, are ready to rebuild and meet the requirements.

“We keep hearing there are hundreds of people who need help,” said Vicki Phillips, executive director of Mental Health Associates of Atlantic County, who has worked with canvassing groups in Ventnor. “We’re like, where are these homes? We’re walking these streets every day.”

One of the problems in Ventnor, at least, may be that people have already done the work with money from their retirement accounts or, in some cases, they just don’t know the help exists because they aren’t living in their houses, said Marie McQueen, who lives on North Oxford Street in the Ventnor Heights section of the city.

“Our whole block was flooded. Quite a few people didn’t have insurance, and even those who did, it cost us $7,000 to get our houses cleaned out,” she said. “Our whole block is just about empty. None of us knew anything about (the recovery groups).”

Organizations including Habitat for Humanity of Atlantic County and the Fuller Center for Housing in the New Jersey Pines have hundreds of thousands of dollars through grant programs including The Robin Hood Foundation, but finding residents who are willing to allow volunteers to come in to do the work or are willing to go through the complicated vetting process has proved to be a major challenge.

Trust may be a big reason, said Merle Brown, president of the Fuller Center’s New Jersey branch.

“Lots of well-intentioned people came in after the storm and maybe didn’t do such a great job (with work),” she said. “We’re also dealing with a lot of people who have been promised a lot of things and nothing has been delivered.”

Craig Snow, operations director for Atlantic City’s long-term recovery group, said he has worked in disasters around the country and was surprised by the level of distrust among residents in Atlantic City and the state as volunteers have offered help.

“What I’m finding as a newcomer is a greater level of fear and suspicion,” Snow said of the city. “That’s going to impact the recovery, and we’ll have to work around that and do our best.”

The Fuller Center received a $250,000 grant from the Robin Hood Foundation and plans to repair 200 homes in Atlantic City over the next year, Brown said. At the end of April, the center will hold a weeklong build for 30 homes in Atlantic City, 27 of which were selected last week, Brown said. That still leaves the group looking for lots of homes in need of repairs. Residents must first register with the Atlantic City Long Term Recovery Center at the Second Baptist Church, and a team will assess whether those homeowners meet income and other requirements.

Brown said she hopes that as work starts on some Atlantic City houses, other homeowners will come forward.

“Maybe these 30 homeowners will then say to their friends and their neighbors that ‘Hey, these people are for real,’” she said. “And that will start getting more people moving forward.”

Zaida Cordova, 50, of North New Jersey Avenue in Atlantic City, is one of those residents who wants others to know the help is for real. Cordova owns her house outright and did not have flood insurance. The storm sent a foot and a half of water into her two-story house, destroying the entire first floor. The Federal Emergency Management Agency told her it could not help because she did not have insurance, so she and two friends have been living in the second floor of the damaged house since December.

In February, Cordova said, someone from the Atlantic City recovery group contacted her, asking whether she needed help.

“I told them nobody can help me because I make enough money,” she said. But the group still connected Cordova with volunteers, who mucked out the first floor, helped treat for mold and are gradually replacing floors and walls — without any cost to her.

“There are so many people that are being blessed by these people, who don’t know you. They’re here from other places, and they come to help you,” Cordova said.

Long-term recovery groups, which act as the general organizers for groups offering rebuilding help and as the starting point for residents needing assistance, are working to assess the general need in the region. Atlantic County’s group is in the midst of going door to door in Ventnor to find out which homes still need help, which homes are second homes and therefore not eligible for aid and which houses are on the road to recovery. Once residents — homeowners, renters and landlords — register with the long-term groups, caseworkers there will help determine what type of need they have and which group is best suited to help.

Homeowners who have insurance are in the process of figuring out how big the gap will be between the cost of rebuilding versus their insurance reimbursement. Other homeowners had no insurance, Phillips said, and they are often the ones who are not OK.

“We know they are out there. We’re sure there are houses that have not been mucked out yet, and they’re still living in these damp homes,” said Henry Wise, regional coordinator for the Salvation Army and chairman of the Atlantic County Long Term Recovery Group. “We’re desperately trying to get to these people, but for one reason or another, they don’t answer their doors or they’re afraid to give us information.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

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