June 8, 2010

Co-founders Julie Genser and Julie Laffin talk about re|shelter

left: re|shelter co-founders Julie Genser and Julie Laffin;
right: interviewers Liz Smentowski and Scott Killingsworth

Liz Smentowski and Scott Killingsworth talk to Julie Genser and Julie Laffin, the co-founders of re|shelter, to find out more about the non-profit’s origins and future goals. Scott became chemically sensitive in 1998 following a Dursban exposure in his office. His passion for safe housing results from his experiences in 2004-2007, when he lost his safe apartment in Georgia and spent the next three years searching for a tolerable place to live. After looking at over 100 houses and sleeping on a porch for 2 ½ years, Scott relocated in 2007 to a safe house in northern Arizona. Liz became chemically and electrically sensitive after a long surgery in 2001. Since then, due to either finances or health difficulties, she has lived in a total of 21 dwellings in 7 cities, including a sailboat in a San Diego harbor. Their personal struggles with housing and resulting passion for helping others solve their housing issues made them the perfect pair to interview re|shelter’s founders.

For those unfamiliar with environmental illness and the issue of safe housing, can you give us a brief background on this special population and housing crisis?

JG: Environmental illness, or chemical sensitivity, is a condition characterized by an acute intolerance to low levels of chemicals, molds, and other substances. Exposure to extremely low levels of an offending substance can cause a wide variety of symptoms, ranging in severity from mild to completely debilitating, and can even be life-threatening. People who develop chemical sensitivity might also develop a hypersensitivity to other environmental influences, such as electromagnetic fields (EMFs), sound waves, vibration, sun radiation, foods, and/or mold. Although there is no universally agreed upon mechanism for environmental illness, there are some who believe that it is primarily a result of damage to specific areas of the brain, caused by chemical injury (from pesticide poisoning, solvent exposure, etc.) and/or neurotoxins from pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi (like Borrelia burgderfori, the spirochete that causes lyme disease, or Stachybotrys chartarum, a toxic black mold).

Although the presentation of the illness can differ substantially from one sufferer to the next, many share the common experience of having severe difficulty remaining in their homes after becoming ill. Interior environments that were formerly comforting and safe suddenly become a source of great physical pain and discomfort. We are not just talking about getting headaches or the sniffles. In my own case, my home and all my material possessions affected my ability to breathe, and my ability to sleep – two functions critical to basic survival. Because of the seriousness of the symptoms, many find themselves living in their car, in a tent in the woods, or sealed up in a purified room in their home, for weeks, months, and sadly, in many cases, years.

Yes, we can both personally relate to that. How have your lives been personally impacted by the lack of EI-safe housing and how has this influenced your desire to do something about it?

JG: When I first got severely disabled by environmental illness, I was in Prescott, AZ, which happened to be a sort of mini Mecca for people with this illness. Many people flock to the southwest desert for it’s warmer weather and dry (less moldy) climate. Even though there was a community of people living with this illness in Prescott, I was still unable to find assistance getting safe housing and had to leave the area. Over the next few years on the East coast, I went from one unsafe living situation to the next, adding new challenges to my already difficult existence with each new attempt at securing safe housing; I became severely electrically sensitive after living in an apartment with high electromagnetic fields (up to 35 milligauss!), extremely mold sensitive after living in a mold infested NYC apartment, and then, I became a universal reactor, tortured daily by neighbors’ personal care product choices, as well as their use of pesticides, wireless electronics and other EMF activities. I made a harrowing 4-day cross-country drive to northern Arizona in order to rent a “safe” house in a community where about 20 others with this illness had already settled and built specialized housing. For me, the lessons I learned were simple and straightforward:

1. If you don’t have safe housing, your illness can progress quickly, and you will probably be tortured daily by assaults to your nervous system and other organ systems.

2. Even in the areas most populated by people disabled by environmental illness, there is usually no consistent and reliable organized system for finding and creating safer housing; we are pretty much on our own.

3. Even in a community where many have built homes to accommodate their illness/disability and there is great collective knowledge about safer materials and construction practices, there is no organized way of sharing that information with the larger population who needs it.

4. There is largely a lack of assistance from the usual sources (e.g., government, local community, family) in solving this housing crisis. So even though we are sick and disabled, and sometimes barely functional, we mostly have to rely on ourselves and on our sick friends to do this work. (There are obviously exceptions to this but for many of us, we are on our own.)

The added piece for me: I have been running Planet Thrive, an online community for people recovering from environmentally based illnesses like chemical injury, for several years and I am contacted frequently by those searching for safer housing. I have heard one too many horror stories of people suffering greatly and being forced to live in their cars, or in a sealed rooms for years, unable to go outside. It would be one thing if a healthy person had to do this, but with environmental illness, people are experiencing horrific symptoms while having to make these life-changing transitions. It just became unbearable to me to go on without taking steps – no matter how small and slow – to address this problem. Especially since I had a background in design and construction from before I became disabled.

JL: My situation shares some important features with Julie Genser’s. Many of the same substances trigger my illness and I have to practice the same rigorous avoidance of them. This means I am largely housebound because of my inability to avoid common chemicals in almost all public spaces. After leaving Chicago and environs to escape the pollution of the metro area, I ended up in an area of heavy agricultural production. My naiveté about moving to the country was shattered after I moved there and found out they were crop dusting the fields in my area frequently and extensively for at least two months of the year (in addition to massive ground spraying in spring). Each year now during July and August I have to leave northern Illinois and embark upon a safe housing quest. My first such venture was to Snowflake, AZ because I was fortunate enough to have met a compassionate couple who made their guest house available to me. When I arrived I was unable to tolerate the guest house so I slept outside on the porch for the first few weeks. In time I figured out that the fiberglass window screens heating up in the Arizona sun were causing the problem and my friends were kind enough to replace the fiberglass with aluminum. With this simple remediation, I was then able to tolerate the house and really enjoyed my stay there. When I told another environmentally ill friend about the solution she exclaimed, “Oh no, I could never tolerate being around the metal.” I realized two things: how extremely idiosyncratic the housing needs of those with environmental illness can be and how some seemingly large housing problems can be resolved with some sleuthing, effort and application of resources.

Wow—well you both have definitely walked in the shoes of those who are terribly challenged by housing. Nationwide, how big is the need for safe housing for people with Environmental Illness (EIs)?

JG: In two large-scale national surveys, Stanley M. Caress, Ph.D. and Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D. found that 11.4% of the general public reported a sensitivity to common chemical products – that’s equivalent to 35 million people.1, 2 Pamela Gibson, PhD, found that 66% of people with chemical sensitivities that she studied turned to an unconventional form of housing at some point in their life, including living in their car, a tent, a horse trailer, or a purified room in their home.3 Although we need more research, according to the findings with her sample, as many as 29 million Americans may be in need of safer housing at some point in their life.

1 http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Prevalence+of+fragrance+sensitivity+in+the+American+population.-a0195287645
2 http://www.prb.org/Topics/Census2010.aspx
3 http://www.mcsresearch.net/journalpapers/lifedisruption.pdf

JL: As Julie Genser indicated the need is staggering and anyone who has been around the EI community for any length of time will have learned about many people struggling to procure safe housing for themselves or a member of their families. Environmental illness in still delegitimized and this in my opinion is a huge part of the problem; people suffering from EI are stigmatized because the illness in our culture at large is not taken seriously. Also, our culture’s love affair with petroleum puts people deeply into denial about the impact chemicals might be having on human health and the environment or in many cases looked at as necessary trade-offs. And there are incredible marketing forces at work to promote the use of many things that are on the market and actually harmful or potentially so. The ubiquitous presence of chemicals in everyday life is a huge contributing factor to the problem our organization is going to address. Most mainstream housing scenarios are just not going to work for many sufferers of EI.

Yes, it’s heartbreaking on so many levels. Being a homeless or home-challenged EI has to be one of the loneliest and most difficult situations a person could face.

Can you explain what the name “re|shelter” means?

JG: “Re|shelter” is essentially a made-up word – you won’t find it in the dictionary. It made sense that we had to create our own word, in a world that does not know how to adequately define or address the housing needs of those with disabling environmental intolerances. The primary intended meaning of the word “re|shelter” is to find shelter for those who have had shelter and lost it; so we are re-sheltering them. Another meaning is “re: shelter,” or “regarding: shelter” which emphasizes that our focus is 100% on addressing housing issues. We wanted a name that was unique, self-explanatory, short and sweet, not used by another company, and it had to be available as a “.org” domain name. “Re|shelter” fit the bill.

Let’s switch gears a bit. You have quite an impressive Board of Advisors. How did you select the members and inspire them to join your mission?

JG: We wanted to have a diverse team to reflect the diverse needs of our target population. Everyone on our team is a person of high integrity and commitment, and adds huge value to our organization. No one is on our Advisory Board as an afterthought. We selected both people who have been working professionally in the fields of environmental medicine, disability rights, architecture and related areas and are quite accomplished, as well as those who have been living with the illness and developing solutions on the ground level. We needed both – people who understand the illness from the inside out and people who understand and are active in the workings of our culture. We also wanted community “elders” who have the wisdom and insight of the politics behind our difficult history, coupled with the fresh energy and vision of those newer to the illness. We have Advisors for statistical and medical/scientific advice (Martin Pall, Ph.D., Pamela Reed Gibson, Ph.D., Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D., Magda Havas, Ph.D., William J. Rea, M.D.) to consult with when writing grant proposals, we have Advisors with many years of experience dealing with disability rights and government housing agencies (Bennie Howard, Susan Molloy), we have architects with experience building for the chemically sensitive (Paula Baker-Laporte) and in low-income desert architecture (Simone Swan), the president of the Indoor Air Quality Association (Carl Grimes), and others who bring critical resourceful problem-solving skills to the table like Melinda Honn and John Egner, who both still live housebound and severely disabled due to MCS and ES but who have an incredible amount of knowledge about safer building materials and construction practices to share.

How did we inspire them to join our team? I think that there already exists a huge desire on the part of many to contribute to solving this housing crisis for those with environmental intolerances. All we did was mobilize energy that was already there, but lacked organization. We identified a problem that needed attention – housing for those with environmental illness – and offered to take leadership on the issue. That made it easy for others to participate. I also think that having my own track record on helping the MCS community through PlanetThrive.com and MCSsafehomes.com gave people enough confidence that I was sincere and would follow through on my intentions.

Many people don’t realize that, in addition to running the Environmental Health Center—Dallas, William J. Rea, M.D. has extensive experience with MCS housing. According to his website, his Center has evaluated and aided in the construction of or remodeled more than 17,000 private and public buildings through their Home and Commercial Building Evaluation service. How did he first get involved with safer construction projects, and does his Center still offer these services?

JG: Yes, Dr. Rea has extensive non-toxic construction experience – he even wrote a home building book called Optimum Environments for Optimum Health and Creativity and co-authored Your Home, Your Health and Well-Being. The fact is, there is an incredible need for safe housing and as the preeminent physician treating people with these devastating illnesses which have been systematically ignored by almost every sector of our society, it makes sense that he got involved in safer construction. After treating over 30,000 patients since opening his clinic in 1974, creating a safer home environment is still one of his top treatment recommendations. I have heard from past patients of his who say that if you don’t have a safe environment to go back to, all the money and time spent at his clinic will be lost because you will just get sick again. Building a safe indoor environment is the foundation from which all health can grow. Dr. Rea knows this, and I imagine this is why he got involved in safer construction to begin with. He is just being the best doctor he can be, helping his patients to get well. His Center is still involved in building projects and anyone interested in his services should contact the Center directly.

Please tell us a little about the major projects that re|shelter is planning.

JG: Our biggest effort initially will be fundraising, because we obviously will need funding in order to bring most of our projects to fruition. We expect that the first years will primarily involve grantwriting. When we receive enough funding, we would like to award housing aid grants to eligible individuals for small renovations – like foiling a room or retrofitting a trailer to make it tolerable – and larger grants to help eligible applicants purchase safe trailers and homes. We would also like to help facilitate the construction of safer homes and healing communities. We hope to collaborate with various architecture and design schools to develop plans for an emergency campground, a pre-fab modular housing prototype, and a small ecovillage, to start.

JL: Yes, because our organization is in its infancy, the focus of our efforts initially will be to identify and appeal to sources whose mission is to provide financial (or in-kind) support for projects like ours.

You feature the housing struggles of people from all over the world on your homepage, where you mention this is an international crisis – does this mean that will you be offering individual grants and building homes and communities outside of America?

JG: Initially, our services will only be for those residing in the United States. Offering grants and other services in other countries is more complicated legally, so at least in the beginning we will limit our scope. But once our organization grows and is able to amass some funding, we definitely hope to expand our reach. It is a global issue and it does need to be addressed on a global scale.

The grant programs for individuals sound like they could provide a much-needed lifeline to a lot of people. How will you determine eligibility for these grants?

JG: We are still developing the criteria for that. Typically, non-profits that give out grants to individuals have very strict guidelines for submitting grant applications (for example, they might require that all information is to be scanned, and then submitted through their website) and you must show proof of medical and financial need with doctors’ notes, SSDI benefit statements, medical prescriptions, etc. With environmental sensitivities, many times people cannot access a computer due to the electromagnetic fields (EMFs), or even find a physician whose office they can tolerate and who will give them a correct diagnosis. So we are working with our lawyer to determine how we can legally allow for these special circumstances so that the most disabled and neediest of us does not get shut out from getting help.

What is the Shelter Angels Network Effort (SANE)?

JG: We hope to create a website that allows private donors to easily contribute to individuals in urgent need directly via their personal PayPal account, without going through re|shelter. Re|shelter would merely provide the cyber real estate and software, but would not be legally or financially involved with those donations. This site would be specifically geared to those with environmental intolerances who are displaced by their illness and need financial assistance to obtain safe shelter and cover daily living costs. We envision that each member in need would create a blog that would tell the story of how they became chemically injured, and would share photos and other personal details to convey the hardships they endure, and to share how donors’ contributions have improved their lives.

How long will EIs be allowed to stay at the Emergency Shelter Campground, and will there be a charge for staying there?

JG: The Emergency Shelter Campground is a project idea that we would like to develop further if funding allows. All the details of fees and length of stay still need to be worked out. If there are fees involved, they will certainly take into account the financial challenges that most with MCS live with. The intent of the campground is to provide short-term emergency shelter for those in urgent need – a place to go to so that you can take time in a safe environment to assess your future needs and make long terms plans. Our hope is to provide small cabins that allow for both indoor and outdoor sleeping and cooking in order to accommodate a wide range of sensitivities. It will not be a place to relocate to permanently, so it can remain available to the many others in emergency situations that need immediate relief. We do not yet have a location for this project, but it would have to be well managed by MCS-aware folks. Design and construction are only half of the equation with projects like this; having reliable EI-educated and EI-friendly management is also crucial to the long-term success of this type of project.

The Raven’s Nest Refuge and Recovery Community sounds wonderful—many of us have dreamed of living in a community where we wouldn’t have to constantly worry about toxic exposures from ignorant neighbors. How big do you envision this community being?

JG: The project will grow organically based on the specific community it will be built in, which has not been determined yet. We are thinking 10-15 people but if we decide to offer a Section 8 HUD housing option, we might need to meet certain criteria. Or we might find that local zoning will only allow for 4 units, so we need to remain open and flexible and see how the project develops.

Will the houses be for sale or rent, and can you give us a rough estimate of what they might cost?

JG: It’s much too early to know. All of these details will need to be worked out once a location is chosen and a team of people assembled to plan the housing project. We would love to offer a range of options – rentals, for sale units, rent-to-owns – but availability of funding will likely determine this to a large extent. The community will be planned, however, for a range of income levels and with the extreme financial challenges that most of us with MCS are faced with in mind. We will survey the MCS community as a part of the design process to better understand existing financial limitations and needs, as well as the physical, emotional, and spiritual requirements for supportive living.

Will prospective buyers at Raven’s Nest be able to have input about things like choice of interior paints, or will all design decisions be standardized?

JG: Part of our hope is that this project will provide a template for the MCS community so that other groups can take what we develop – as far as floorplans and material specifications go – and modify them for their own use. So my thought is to create a design standard that has several safer materials options and several aesthetic themes, so that each home looks different than the next, and is built with a different set of materials so that people can have options if they do not tolerate one model. All of this is subject to change, of course, as the project develops.

Many people with chemical sensitivities also suffer from electrical sensitivities. Will Raven’s Nest be designed and administered to be tolerable for these people, including perhaps a section of the community that is off-grid?

JG: Electrical sensitivities will most definitely be factored into the design, as will sun, wind, mold and other environmental sensitivities. However, we most likely will not be able to accommodate the most severe cases of ES. There are some people whose needs are so restrictive that they really need a completely customized home far away from others. Applying for one of our individual grants to build or buy their own trailer or home might be a better fit for them rather than trying to live in a closer-knit community setting.

As far as off-grid goes, many with MCS and ES cannot tolerate solar inverters that come with active solar installations. Others cannot be near propane or gas, or even wind power. So off-grid is difficult for severe environmental sensitivity. It also requires more maintenance and troubleshooting on a day-to-day basis, which many who are ill from environmental illness would not be able to keep up with consistently. For a start-up community plan like this, it seems more practical to begin with a design that keeps electrical sources at a specified distance from living spaces, which would be tolerable for many with ES issues. If we are successful and receive enough funding, we can plan for specialized communities in the future that are geared to more severely afflicted individuals.

Whom do I contact if I’m interested in getting an individual grant or renting/buying a house at Raven’s Nest?

JG: I realize that we may receive an onslaught of inquiries like this from people in desperate situations because the need is so great and there is nowhere to turn to for help. However, we are a start-up organization run by a small group of disabled volunteers, and we do not expect to have any funding to offer any services or begin our projects for at least a year or more. The best thing to do is to check in regularly on our website reshelter.org and sign up for email updates (see the right column on our website). This way, you will be the first to hear if we are offering grants or have moved forward with any of our projects. If you’d like, you could send us your name, a brief summary of your situation, location, and contact information through the contact form on our website. We will keep a running list of people in need of help, should anything come to our attention that might be helpful.

But keep in mind that the more questions we have to respond to through our website, the less time and energy we will have to focus on the projects, so we appreciate people giving us the time and space to begin the grantwriting process. For those that want to get involved or have questions on specific projects, you can join our group on Planet Thrive. We welcome community input and participation.

Have you already established ties with any architecture and design schools, and if so which ones?

JG: I have personal connections at Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis in the College of Human Ecology, where I graduated from, and at ECOSA Institute for Sustainable Design, the school I was enrolled in when I became severely environmentally intolerant in 2004 and had to drop out of the program. I am currently in conversation with professors from both schools about having some of our project ideas used as class projects in the coming years. We plan on reaching out to many other schools that focus on green and socially responsible architecture as well.

Collaborating with architecture and design schools seems like a great idea—having safe housing that is attractive as well as functional would be wonderful. But do you feel confident that they will adequately understand the distinction between “green” (which focuses mainly on sustainability) and “safe” (which focuses on occupant health) housing design?

JG: The key word here is “collaboration.” What is so exciting to me about working with students is the opportunity to educate them on safer materials and issues like mold prevention and passive solar design. What we are hoping for is a successful marriage of environmentally responsive, organic design, passive solar principles, and safer, inert materials.

Are you aware of any other housing ventures for people with chemical and/or electrical hypersensitivity? And if so, are there any lessons learned that re|shelter can apply to it’s projects?

JG: Yes, I am aware of other MCS/ES housing projects, both completed and those that started but never materialized. We will certainly look at and be in touch with those groups during the design process of related projects that we coordinate. We do not want to redesign the wheel so we will of course be looking closer at the Ecology House project in San Rafael, CA, and the OCCAC project in Snowflake, AZ, as well as other planned and/or completed communities in America and around the world to learn about all the successes and failures that can help us make better decisions for our own projects.

Due to the economy it’s a challenging time to launch a new non-profit. Can you give us a synopsis of re|shelter’s strategy for raising money to initiate these much-needed projects?

JG: We plan to take a multi-faceted approach to soliciting funding. We will pursue grants in various related and overlapping fields – healthcare, green housing, the arts, disability, the environment. We will utilize resources on the Internet, including setting up a Facebook Cause to mobilize a wide network of people with environmental illness that already exists, joining various websites that help non-profits raise funds, creating widgets for others to post on their websites and blogs. We will approach safer construction companies for materials donations. We will connect with schools and other non-profits to raise awareness and collect funds.

In addition, re|shelter Vice President Julie Laffin, Advisory Board member Clover Morell, and myself have a background in the fine and performing arts. We plan to develop some powerful visual and performance art projects that will simultaneously help raise global awareness about environmental illness in general – and the housing crisis specifically – while raising needed funds. If there is someone out there with other great fundraising ideas, please send them our way!

Given the continued lack of awareness and understanding about environmental illness and the housing crisis, how do you plan to enlighten potential donors about this?

JG: To start, we are collecting pictures of people in challenging housing situations to feature on our website’s homepage. There is nothing like documentary photography to make an issue real. We are also sharing facts and statistics of the problem on our website. In time, we will develop a media kit that we can send to potential donors and use for grant proposals that uses statistics, imagery, and video to illuminate the urgent housing crisis. Part of our approach will be to show not just the problem, but the solution as well – donors must understand that the solution is within reach, just a donation away from becoming actualized. If there are people out there with compelling stories and photographs of their housing situations that they would be willing to share in this way, please contact us.

Julie Laffin, how do you envision engaging the arts community to help support re|shelter?

JL: I am in the fortunate of position, even though disabled now from EI, of still being connected to the Chicago arts community and am able with the help of collaborators to get the message out. Last November I had the opportunity to curate a show at the Chicago Cultural Center on the theme of disability and was able to address my condition as the subject of a work I co-created with another artist, Clover Morell, at the suggestion of Claire Geall Sutton, the Director of Theater there. Because of my severe hypersensitivity to fragrances I am unable to engage with my community in person but am able to use teleconferencing. For example, last month I gave a talk via video conferencing at DePaul University in Chicago for their Chronic Illness and the Arts symposium. Also, Julie Genser, Clover Morell (now a re|shelter Advisory Board member) and I are planning a large-scale art piece about the EI housing crisis we hope will appeal to other organizations and institutions and garner their support. And we’ll continue to both seek out and avail ourselves to whatever opportunities come our way. There is a long history of political activism in the artistic community in Chicago and it makes people there open to various causes. Globally, artists are generally apt to embrace and speak out about differences be they religious, political, racial or of sexual orientation and I’ve found my community of artists very receptive to learning about environmental illness. One artist offered to have a benefit on my behalf when he found out I was ill. I hope to be able to mobilize public interest in re|shelter within the arts community and beyond.

That sounds like a wonderful way to raise both awareness of the issue and money to help do something about it.

Going after corporate dollars seems smart, since they often have deep pockets and a desire to help worthy causes (or at least bolster their PR). But will corporate money potentially come with strings attached?

JG: If those strings jeopardize our mission at all or put us in a compromising position, we will not pursue it. Before accepting any funds from outside sources – corporate or other – we will be sure to evaluate each one cautiously and check all legal documents to insure that we are not committing to take actions or alter our projects in any way that would be counterproductive to our goal.

What do you foresee as the most significant administrative challenges re|shelter will face, and how do you plan to deal with them?

JG: One administrative challenge is that both of us on the Board of Directors is struggling with our own debilitating form of the illness, and the ensuing lifestyle limitations imposed. But we also understand – looking at the history of this illness over the past twenty years – that the only way to move forward to tackle this housing crisis is to move forward ourselves, even if at a slow pace, because there is no one else out there helping us in any substantial way. The housing challenge is just as serious and devastating today as it was in 1998 when Rhonda Zwillinger documented it with her book The Dispossessed. Not much has changed, sad to say.

One positive challenge we have considered is that we might receive large amounts of funding very soon after going public, and that the organization might grow faster than we planned. In that case, we would hire appropriate staff to help grow into the expanded opportunities to help others.

Well that would certainly be a nice challenge to have. Have you identified specific grants you’re planning to apply for?

JG: We have been building a database of potential grants and funders over the last six months, however we have been primarily focused on setting up the legal entity, building our Board of Advisors, and creating a website up till this point. We are rolling up our sleeves to get busy with the grantwriting process over the next few months.

Can donors specify that their donations go to a specific project?

JG: Yes, however if projects do not materialize within a specified timeframe, we will appropriate them to the project highest on our priority list.

We’re impressed with the scope of re|shelter’s ambition and for tackling this crisis on multiple fronts. Since you probably won’t have all the money you’ll need right at first, how do you plan to prioritize these efforts?

JG: Our priority is to give out small grants to help people in emergency situations, so that they can create a safe living space in their home or renovate a trailer or other form of housing right now. Longer-term construction projects will take second priority, at least initially, until we can amass enough funding to proceed. Our overriding goal is always to help people on the ground level who are being disabled and made homeless by the fumes from building materials, mold, EMFs, and other factors in their home environments.

Assuming that fundraising goes as expected, can you tell us when the individual grants, the Emergency Shelter Campground, and Raven’s Nest will be started?

JG: Honestly, there is no expectation for fundraising. It could happen quickly or may take many years. We are hoping that we can start giving out grants in early 2011, or possibly sooner. We do plan to begin developing the architectural projects on paper as much as possible right away, however, so that we can use renderings and plans in the grantwriting process.

There have been many other people with a similar passion for contributing to a solution for the EI housing problem, but only a few projects ever got off the ground and were completed. Why do you think you’ll have better success than all those who have tried in the past?

JG: Well, first off we need to clarify that most of those unrealized projects you refer to were MCS housing communities. Our venture is primarily to raise funds for grants, so that is a big difference. Although we would love to eventually create communities, our short-term goals are much more reachable. Some of the reasons past housing projects have never been completed include: lack of funding, ill health of organizers, difficulty in designing for a wide range of tolerances, and difficulty in accommodating needs and personalities of those who are limbic system impaired in a community setting. With an awareness of all these issues up front and personal experience living in MCS communities ourselves, we feel we are well equipped to tackle these potential problems when the time comes.

Well, it’s a very exciting venture and we both wish you the best success with it!

Scott Killingsworth has a B.A from Wake Forest University and M.S. from Georgia Tech, both in Psychology, and worked in corporate training for 9 years. Scott now lives in a safe house in northern Arizona.

Liz Smentowski has a B.S. in Marketing from Oral Roberts University and an International M.B.A. from Thunderbird School of Global Management. She worked in the electronics and technology industries for 8 years. Liz started her quest for health-appropriate housing 3 years ago. She has lived in 4 E.I. homes since then and her condition has worsened, largely due to faulty electrical wiring or transmission. Liz resides in northern Arizona.

photo credit: Julie Genser ©Steve Savitz

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Community Feedback

  • Connie Rae

    June 8, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Thank you all..great interview. I am one of the faces..This is a much needed and prayed for ’cause’.

  • Julie Laffin

    June 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks, Connie. You are always so supportive! xo, julie

  • Dottie

    June 10, 2010 at 7:00 am

    It’s wonderful to see people helping others…it’s what this world should truly be about.

  • Julie Laffin

    June 10, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Thanks, Dottie! We are going to do our very best and appreciate your kind words.

    warm wishes,
    Julie L.

  • Betty Smith

    July 4, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Have you asked the Gates Foundation for funding?

  • Julie Genser

    July 5, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Betty,
    Not yet – we are in process of applying for 501(c)3 status. Once we are approved, we will be able to pursue funding from the Gates Foundation and other places. Thanks for the great suggestion! Julie

  • k

    July 19, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    i just wrote a lengthy comment & timed out, so it deleted! ok, short version: i have lived with chemical sensitivities/porphyria for 17 years. i recently had to abandon a housing project with 3 sets of living quarters i developed in new mexico when the environment changed after several years. i am homeless again, living temporarily in louisiana with family. my background is in developing housing programs for mentally ill persons & artistic endeavors to raise awareness. i would be thrilled to help with this!

  • Julie Genser

    July 21, 2010 at 11:35 am

    K, so sorry to hear your struggle with homelessness. Your background sounds like a great fit for us. I actually had planned to contact some non-profits I found that develop housing programs for the mentally ill to learn from their models. Can you please send me an email to the support@reshelter.org address so I can keep your email on file with the other people who have expressed interest in getting more involved? I’d love to talk more about this when we are further along with our 501(c)(3) status. Thanks for writing, and sorry that you lost your first comment!

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