WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The program that paid for hotel or motel rooms as emergency sheltering for Hurricane Florence survivors ended March 12.
Two weeks later, Keith Hester and his wife are still living in the single motel room they have spent the last six months in, but now they are paying nearly $500 each week to stay off the streets.
“I don’t want to be one of the guys standing on the corner with a cardboard sign, depending on everyone else," Hester said. "I’m a self-sufficient machine.”
The Hesters got some help not long after this story aired Tuesday on WECT.
Paul Dunn with Lutheran Services Carolinas said Thursday the group will pay for two additional weeks in the hotel for the Hesters. If their hotel stay extends beyond that, Dunn said, “We will not let them be homeless.”
Hester and his wife lived in Carolina Beach and could afford housing thanks to his job.
“It’s a big transition. Everything that used to be ain’t there anymore," Hester said. "Me and the wife used to take walks on the beach in the mornings before work. We’d send photos in to WECT, and we miss that. We really do.”
After Florence hit, everything changed.
“After the storm, we were advised by the landlord that nobody could move back on the premises for damages so then we were stuck homeless and I had a job but stuff started getting thrown away so I ended up getting fired from my job," Hester said. "So I ended up jobless and homeless and thank God for these resources because who knows where I’d be now.”
Hester received FEMA Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) and was placed in a job at Wilmington Response through the NC Works Grant program. Each day he shows up to assist other Florence victims while still reeling from its impacts himself.
“It makes me feel good that I’m able to help the ones that still need help and can’t help themselves," Hester said. “It just gives you a good feeling on the inside and helps you to keep going. I can get up and move around and go. A lot of people can’t. They have to depend on others and I can’t imagine that, somebody having to do for me what I’ve been doing for my family.”
Hester is a humble man and a hard worker, and while he has faith that everything will work out, it is getting harder to make ends meet.
“It’s almost $500 a week so if it weren’t for help with food, I don’t know what we’d do," Hester said. "It’s unreal.”
He and his wife have been searching for a more permanent housing solution, but say affordable housing has been impossible to find.
“We’ve been looking at apartments and housing but everything is, you’ve got to make three times the rent before they’ll rent to you," Hester said. “Then, you’ve got your security deposit. It’s a lot of money to come up with.”
Though much of the area has moved on after the storm, Hester wants to make sure people do not forget about those who are still suffering.
“I myself can see a little spot of light at the end of the tunnel but I know there’s others out there that are in worse shape than we are, and they have kids, and that’s really the main concern are the ones that have kids,” he said.
The Hester family has made the best of their situation, turning their own hardships into opportunities to help others.
“The room gets smaller. It does. We went through the holidays in the motel and instead of feeling sorry for ourselves for Christmas, we cooked Christmas dinner for all the FEMA families at the hotel," Hester said. "That was a big help, giving back.”
He said there are other victims living in the motel because they could not secure stable housing before funding expired.
“It was a lot of families when we first got there. A lot of them were waiting on their houses to get fixed back, and still quite a few like me who were left homeless," Hester said. "I think there’s still a couple more there left but now we’re having to pay for the motel ourselves. It’s hard to rent a place when you ain’t got any income coming in. It’s one battle after another.”
Hester is even using his extra time to get his electrical license, a longtime goal he never had the time to complete before.
With this hopeful outlook, he spends his days at Wilmington Response helping out in any way he can, and hoping others will do the same.
“Donations. Just donate what you can. They’re much appreciated and needed," Hester said. "Like I said, there’s still a lot of people being affected. It ain’t over for them yet.”
And while it is not over for the Hester family either, Keith is staying focused on others, having faith it will all work out.
“I just think about others before I think about myself. I always look at what could be," Hester said. “We’ll find somewhere to live one way or another.”