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New organisation aims to provide safe housing to those with environmental sensitivities




re|shelter logoRe|shelter is a recently launched non-profit organisation aiming to address the urgent need for safe housing for people with environmental sensitivities, who experience mild to life-threatening physical reactions to extremely low levels of chemicals, mould, electrical fields, and other environmental factors and have great difficulty living in their conventionally built homes.

The US-based charitable organisation is currently applying for 501(c)3 status and is committed to addressing the global housing crisis and high rates of homelessness and suicide within vulnerable populations affected by disabling environmental sensitivities.

The activities re|shelter plan to engage in to meet their goals include fundraising, awarding housing aid grants, facilitating the design and construction of healthy homes and communities, and using the arts to promote awareness of environmental illness (EI) and the vital importance of safe housing for sufferers.

Co-founders Julie Genser and Julie Laffin formed the charity because the need is so great, and no one else is doing it, says Genser. Genser and Laffin are hoping to direct funding from government and the private sector to help prevent homelessness and further suffering for those unable to secure safe housing due to their own limited resources. Both Genser and Laffin were disabled by severe chemical, electrical and other environmental sensitivities within the last six years and have a firsthand understanding of the housing struggle for this population. The two met online four years ago in a group for artists with chemical sensitivities.

Genser and Laffin draw on both personal experience and published research and statistics to provide the following information regarding EI and housing:

  • There are over 35 million people in the world suffering from some form of environmental illness (EI) today, who experience mild to life-threatening physical reactions to extremely low levels of chemicals, mold, foods, electrical fields, and other environmental factors.
  • Over 60% of people with environmental sensitivities studied are homeless, living in their cars, in a tent in the woods, in run-down trailers, or are prisoners in toxic apartments and homes across the country because they have no other housing options. That means that according to the findings with this sample, as many as 29 million Americans may be in need of safer housing at some point in their life.
  • Due to the nature of the illness, many people with environmental illness experience rejection, blame, abandonment, ridicule, anger, and even assault (from the intentional use of substances known to cause them bodily harm) from the people they know and love most. They often live in near isolation just to avoid exposure to the chemicals and other substances that cause them debilitating symptoms.
  • Because of the loss and separation from most everything and everyone they know and love, many EIs experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as part and parcel of getting the illness, and the daily trauma that comes from the social isolation imposed by the illness can sometimes feel worse than the physical symptoms themselves.
  • Many EIs lack access to medical care, food, and housing due to their environmental intolerance, physician/health practitioner offices are inaccessible due to the use of air fresheners, cleaning chemicals, and perfumed patients and health care workers; food in supermarkets and even health food stores is contaminated by fragrant product displays located near open food displays; standard housing is usually rife with triggers: from formaldehyde in building materials and toxic glues used in construction, to mold, faulty electrical wiring, and air fresheners used by former tenants.

Given these facts and the lack of other organisations offering the services that re|shelter plans to offer it is little surprise that Genser and Laffin have been able to attract high calibre figures with a wealth of qualifications, knowledge and experience to join them as advisors to the pioneering charity.

Genser and Laffin will comprise the Board of Directors. The Advisory Board has 16 notable members with experience working in related fields, or with the illness itself, including William J. Rea, M.D., a pioneer in environmental medicine and safer housing construction, Pamela Reed-Gibson, Ph.D., an author and researcher of the life impacts of environmental sensitivities, Magda Havas, Ph.D., an expert on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation, Carl Grimes, President of the Indoor Air Quality Association, Bennie Howard, the former director of the Office of Disability at HUD, Susan Molloy, a long-time disability rights activist, and Paula Baker-Laporte, an architect experienced in building for those with environmental sensitivities.

Commenting on her research with EI patients Pamela Reed-Gibson notes that "Housing may be the single most crucial element in survival and possible improvement for someone with MCS. Yet it is almost impossible for people with MCS to find places to live that are truly safe for them. Housing may be their most difficult challenge, a challenge greater even than for people with other disabilities. Two-thirds of my respondents had lived in unusual conditions such as in RVs, tents, cars, or porches at some point since developing MCS. One respondent in my research had lived in her horse trailer for a year." (Get the book - Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed-Gibson, Ph.D.)

Some of the organisation's planned projects include awarding home renovation grants to eligible individuals, construction of a clean air community as well as an emergency shelter, and an architecture school outreach program that educates students while collaborating on re|shelter's projects.

Genser studied Design and Environmental Analysis/Interior Design at Cornell University and coordinated construction projects prior to getting ill. She had just become certified in permaculture and ecovillage design, and was enrolled in an intensive 4-month sustainable architecture semester at ECOSA Institute when she became severely disabled by environmental illness and had to drop out of the program. She has unique insight into re|shelter's target population: the last five years she has moved seven times in search of safe housing that did not severely affect her health.

Laffin also knows the struggle of finding safe housing; she searches each summer for a place to escape the aerial crop spraying in her home county in northern Illinois. Driven by compassion and personal insight into the particular problem of housing for those with environmental illness, the two are very excited to be taking this important step, as there is no other organization in existence today that is solely focused on housing solutions for those with environmental intolerances.

For further information visit the re|shelter website.


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