PublicSource | News for a better Pittsburgh (https://www.publicsource.org/following-de-ruad-street-residents-displaced-by-fire/)

Christopher Green has been staying in a boarding house in Homewood, apart from his family. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

On Aug. 17, residents of De Ruad Street in West Oakland watched their homes go up in flames. The five-alarm fire left three buildings uninhabitable in the low-income apartment complex owned by Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation [AHRCO]. Some, like Geraldine Shields, lost everything: Clothing, keepsakes, important documents. Some are already in new apartments, miles away from the community. Others are in limbo, not certain when they’ll be able to return or where they can go instead.

In the immediate aftermath, some of the 74 residents displaced found shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. When the Red Cross closed the shelter, they moved to hotel rooms or to couches in the homes of friends or family. Meanwhile, life moves on. School has started, no longer a short walk up the hill. It’s also harder for some residents to get to their jobs.

Already facing financial hardship, residents worry what happens next. Where do they go from here? Will they be pushed to areas outside of Pittsburgh, where affordable housing is already scarce? Or will they return to buildings that residents described as dirty and poorly maintained?



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AHRCO president Lara Washington told PublicSource that past complaints from residents were resolved and that the company was aware of no current code violations. AHRCO has moved some residents to other units in its portfolio, and eight of the 11 buildings on De Ruad Street have been deemed safe for residents to return.

To track the lasting impact of the fire and how residents are adapting to displacement — both permanent and temporary — PublicSource will continue to check in with residents of multiple households in the coming weeks. PublicSource has received inquiries on how to help residents displaced for the fire. Click here for resources.

Since leaving the David L. Lawrence convention center, Christopher Green has been staying in a Homewood boarding house. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

For Christopher Green, it’s been another week of uncertainty. He’s still paying for a room in a Homewood boarding house while his family stays at a hotel in Green Tree. The arrangement, he said, makes it “10 times harder” to see his family.

Christopher’s partner, Shawna Patrick, and the kids are waiting on a new apartment. But Christopher is worried that a new apartment could have problems like their building on De Ruad Street, where the family complained about mice and roaches.

In the meantime, their children — a Kindergartener and a third grader — haven’t been able to attend school in the Hill District. There’s no way for them to make the trip, he said.

The first day of school for Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] students was August 26 and the first day of Kindergarten was Aug. 29.

Pittsburgh Public Schools spokesperson Ebony Pugh said the district had originally planned to bus students affected by the fire to their schools from the Red Cross shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. That shelter closed Aug. 20. Pugh said the district didn’t receive updated addresses for the affected children until Sept. 5. The district planned to begin transporting affected children via Z-Trip vehicles beginning today.

Last week, Chris said he worked 15 jobs in three days, doing everything from home repairs to cutting lawns. On Friday, he cut grass at eight different properties, repaired a concrete wall and painted the railings and awnings of a home. Once he subtracts his living expenses, he tends to have about $40 per day left over. Most of that goes to his family or food, bus fare, or other things he needs, he said.

Despite the setbacks, Chris is trying to stay positive. He smiled as he scrolled through photos he took for a recent hip-hop showcase on the South Side. Chris said he’s hopeful that he can work to provide a better life for his family.

“I still got people that I care about and people that care about me, so it's not like it's all over,” he said. “At the end of the day, I can't give up.”

The whirlwind of disorder and uncertainty following the Aug. 17 fire has begun to subside for Nicole and her 2-year-old son Pharaoh.

After leaving the the DoubleTree hotel in Green Tree, the two have moved into an apartment not far from the De Ruad complex. Nicole eagerly described her new apartment as “very nice” compared to her previous residence. A young mother who lived down the hall from Nelson in their old building has found an apartment just down the street, restoring that social fabric they created to look out for one another and their children.

Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center, a nonprofit outreach arm of Macedonia Church, provided assistance in finding the apartment and getting Nicole and Pharaoh set up at the new location.

Whatever possessions were salvageable from the fire have been returned to Nicole, but she noted that the remains were scarce. Nicole will need to purchase new belongings, and she said Pharoah was returning to day care in the Hill District.

Though their situation is stabilizing, Nicole has worries about her long-term financial situation and what will come next.

Geraldine Shields, 44, stands outside of her new apartment in West Mifflin after being displaced by a fire at her apartment on De Ruad Street in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Geraldine Shields said she now feels like AHRCO cares. The company gave her $100 on a bus card so she can get around. And they let her pick out new clothing at one of their spaces for free. Geraldine was afraid the clothes the company offered would be worn out, used clothing, but they were nice.

AHRCO staff also introduced her to three women who run the food pantry at her new housing complex. One of them asked how she was doing and if she needed anything, and Geraldine began to cry because she has been feeling so overwhelmed.

She is now planning to volunteer at the food pantry with them. It's something else to help her deal with the anxiety of her current living situation.

Geraldine doesn’t like being stressed by not having a place to do her laundry in her new apartment. She doesn’t like that her back hurts from sleeping and sitting on her temporary air mattress, rather than her old queen-sized bed. She’s worried the stress will take its toll on her relationships with others.

“Pretty much my life is perfect when I ain’t stressing. Once I start stressing, it’s game over."

Geraldine said AHRCO helped her set up an appointment to look for new furniture near the end of the month. She said she’s considering seeing a counselor to help her manage recent stress.

Devin McClain has recently been staying with a friend near his old apartment. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Devin McClain said he “came close to trying to find a place” to stay more permanently this week but decided against it. A friend offered to sublet his apartment in a building near his old place for $121 per month; the friend is staying with family now and doesn’t need it. But Devin worries about getting in trouble because sublets are not allowed by AHRCO, he said. So he’s asking his old coworkers at Smokin’ Joe’s Saloon on the South Side to see if the apartments above the bar are for rent.

He’s recently been staying with a friend who has a three-bedroom apartment near his old apartment. She has space for him and told him he could stay there while he saves up for his own place. He paid her $50, gave her two packs of cigarettes and bought some food for the apartment last week, and does some cleaning, he said.

Devin and his friend are on different schedules: she works security and he often doesn’t start work until late, so they don’t bump into each other getting ready for work. But they’ll often come together to watch anime series such such as Death Note. That’s how they originally became friends.

On Tuesday, Devin spent the morning scrubbing the ceiling of the bar he works at, with buckets of Lysol. He was getting ready to clean out the walk-in cooler.

"I’m the only person who is willing to get my winter jacket, deck brush, gloves and go scrub the cooler down,” he said.

After work Devin planned to move some of clothes and his TV into the apartment he’s been staying at.

Geraldine Shields is settled in her new apartment in West Mifflin. But she worries about the impact of the De Ruad Street fire on her mental health. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Geraldine Shields is worried about clothing herself and her mental health following the upheaval caused by the fire.

“This way I’m feeling right now, coming from so much to nothing, and having to restart and reset my life, it’s very mind-blowing: it’s going 1,000 miles a minute,” she said. "These voices I got in my head and they all get together and start talking and then I’ll snap."

To keep her mind occupied, she has started papering the walls of her new apartment with black contact paper that looks like marble. It’s the kind of project she used to do in her old apartment, where she painted each wall a different color and painted a path in the floor between her door and the bathroom.

She used the $250 the Red Cross gave her to buy undergarments, T-shirts and socks to go with four pairs of shorts and the pair of flip flops she was wearing during the fire. But she still doesn’t have any pants. "It’s about to be cold outside,” she said.

She said she was told to go to an agency to pick up new clothing. But she said the room she was taken to smelled like mold and mildew and the clothes were worn. The shoes had holes in them and the church outfits were for people much older than her, she said.

Her friend Joe, who she has known for 13 years, takes her dirty clothes every few days on the bus with him back to the Hill District, washes them and brings them back to her. He’s also offered to pay her first month’s rent, she said, to give her some breathing room, even though he is also on disability.

AHRCO, the company that owned the building that burned down, sent her an air mattress, even though she already has two, and told her she could pick up clothes on Thursday. Shields said she believes she will be offered more used clothing.

"I know AHRCO has insurance and they are going to come out big and what do we have?” she asked. "It just don’t make sense. What do we got?”

Geraldine Shields was getting her picture taken in front of her new apartment in West Mifflin on Tuesday when gunshots rang out and she ran toward the front door.

Devin was staying with Geraldine: both have been displaced by the fire on De Ruad Street in West Oakland.

“Bullets don’t have no names,” said 44-year-old Geraldine, whose new apartment is owned by the same company as the property that erupted in flames on Aug. 17: AHRCO. “I hate that they moved me into some place like this.”

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Geraldine lost everything in the fire, including childhood pictures of her son, her 3-year-old guppy fish, her birth certificate and all of her clothes, shoes and TVs. She had lived there since 2004.

She has been waking up early on a borrowed air mattress and calling numbers from a packet given to her by the Red Cross so she can get assistance with all sorts of necessities. “Nobody has done nothing” yet, she said. She described calling dozens of numbers from the packet over the past week: the people who answered would often give her a new number to call, and she scribbled the numbers into the margins of her packet.

The only assistance offered by Red Cross, she said, was a box of dry food, including a jar of creamy peanut butter, two boxes of macaroni from Pasta USA, spaghetti, two cans of La Croix sparkling water and two bags of cereal.

Geraldine Shields holds a packet listing numbers to call for assistance after the De Ruad Street fire. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

AHRCO gave her a $100 to spend at Giant Eagle, where she bought bread and chips and some other essentials, like a plastic liner for her new shower. The company also gave her $25 cash for transportation, which she used for a Lyft ride to her new apartment in West Mifflin. She doesn’t have a car and has had to rely on a friend for other transportation.

Geraldine said she is borrowing an air mattress from her god-dad. She’s borrowing a window air conditioning unit from a friend, who also offered her a used washer and dryer, but she didn’t have any way to pick them up. She borrowed a TV from her cousin, which she was using Tuesday to play a June episode of “The Price is Right” in the background. (One of the items being bid for on the show: a year’s supply of groceries.)

She took a break in phone calls and lit up a Newport, which she said she was smoking more because of all the stress.

Two borrowed lamps sat on the floor next to the air mattresses in the living room. The two bedrooms upstairs were empty, except for a floor mat she borrowed from her sister in one. In the other bedroom, a few items of clothing rested on a closet shelf.

Less than an hour after the gunshots, Geraldine was feeling grateful. She had a grass yard and a porch in the back, something she didn’t have in the apartment that burned down.

A security guard at the entrance talked to the police and said no one had been hit by the bullets earlier. Geraldine said she feels like her part of the Mon View Heights apartment complex where she is staying is relatively safe.

She doesn’t know if she would be able to afford the rent yet, but hoped there could be a discount for awhile while she used the rest of her disability check to buy back all of the items she lost in the fire.

Devin McClain walks across the Birmingham Bridge to visit a friend on Sept. 3. McClain was displaced by the De Ruad Street fire on Aug. 17. He's since been staying with friends. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Devin McClain ate most of his meals this past week at Jubilee Kitchen, the soup kitchen down the street from where his apartment burned down about two weeks ago.

He’s used to living cheaply: bulk hamburger meat will last him a long time, he said. But he’s hesitant to buy too much food for himself now that he’s bouncing between two different friends’ apartments. And so, instead of stopping by the soup kitchen a couple times per week as he did while living in the De Ruad Street apartment, he’s been eating most meals at Jubilee.

The fire has caused him to lose a significant portion of his income, which he earned running errands for neighbors. They used to give him shopping lists for groceries or even lottery ticket numbers, and then he would walk to the South Side and bring back the items in an hour. He’d get paid about $5 for each trip, although sometimes he earned $10 when he ran two errands at once. His delivery service is cheaper than the transportation cost of the jitneys, which charge $6 in each direction, he said. The fire has cost him about $60 per week.

He worked three days last week at a bar on the South Side. That amounts to about $150 every two weeks, plus about $60 in tips. On Tuesday, he was planning to print out a couple résumés at a career center Downtown and apply for additional work at a gas station near De Raud and beer distributor on the South Side.

Without the apartment, he doesn’t have to pay the $336 rent. But he was several months behind on rent even before the fire, and was worried the landlord would evict him. That’s why he was keeping most of his things in a friend’s apartment and didn’t lose much in the fire. He said he has reached out to a local agency about new housing but said he didn’t hear back from them.

Staying with family hasn’t been an option: Devin’s dad and two siblings have passed away, and he said his mom has drug and mental health issues. He had some stability at his De Ruad Street apartment the last few years, he said, but it isn’t uncommon for him to bounce around with friends while he saves up for his own apartment.

Devin turned 38 on Tuesday but didn’t have any plans to celebrate. "As you get older, it gets more difficult to figure out,” he said. "Because you start wondering how you ended up doing this. The employment around here ain’t good enough, man."—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Devin McClain sitting outside of friend Geraldine Shields' new apartment after both had been displaced by the De Ruad Street fire. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

After the fire on De Ruad Street, Devin McClain was offered a free hotel in Green Tree but couldn’t take it, he said, because it’s too far away from the bar he works at in the South Side.

It used to take Devin about 12 minutes to walk to work over the Birmingham Bridge to Ruggers Pub. But from Green Tree, he estimated it could take up to two hours by bus. After the late-night shift, the trip would be impossible because the buses stop running. He’s been staying with different friends on different days, most recently in the Mon Valley with another resident displaced by the fire. On work days, he stays with friends closer to his job.

On Aug. 17, Devin, 37, said he was helping an elderly couple remove trash from their apartment when he learned about the fire. Devin grew up nearby and said he’s often done odd jobs for older residents.

“All the old heads around here know my uncles and know my aunts,” he said. “So when older folks need stuff done, No. 1, they’re going to ask me because they know me. And once they tell one of their friends, no, I don’t steal and, yes, I will bring back your receipt, they ask me to do stuff for them, too.”

When he brought the couple’s trash to the street, he saw a woman he knew screaming at her kids. He asked her, “Cupcake, are you OK?”

“My house is on fire,” she told him. He wasn’t sure if he heard correctly. But once it sank in, he said he ran back into the building and started pounding on doors throughout the building. He yelled “Get out! Get out!” and spent three or four seconds outside each door.

Two of the apartments on the second floor already had smoke pouring out, he said, and the hallway felt hot. He didn’t see anyone else fleeing the building but saw one or two heads pop into the hallway.

“I felt so useless,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the responses that I expected from what I was doing to get them to come out their crib.”

When he got to the front of the building, a fireman asked if everyone was out of the building. Devin said he wasn’t sure.

A few days later, he bumped into one of the women from his building near Jubilee Kitchen, down the street. “Oh baby, that was you telling us to get out,” he said she told him. “Thank you.”

After being displaced from De Ruad Street and spending several nights in a hotel with her 9-year-old son Ny’Air, Desirea Pate has a temporary new apartment.

“It’s working out, but it’s been very, very hard for the most part,” she said. “I’m not in too much of a deep dark spirit as I once was. I feel like there's been an outcome.”

On her last day of being housed at the DoubleTree hotel in Green Tree on Friday, Desirea was connected with a property owner by state Rep. Jake Wheatley’s office. Desirea and Ny’Air moved into an apartment near Carlow University over the Labor Day weekend. The lease is only for two months, and it’s the family’s third temporary housing situation since the fire (a relative’s living room, the hotel room and now this apartment). Desirea’s hoping to receive a Section 8 housing voucher before her lease ends on Oct. 31.

“After two months, I’m wondering what the process is going to have to be,” she said, “and how long is that process going to take?”

Desirea said she had to pull money together for the jitney rides to the old apartment on De Ruad Street, where she was able to salvage some of her and Ny’Air’s clothing and to the grocery store, laundromat and pharmacy. The first thing Desirea got situated once she was in Oakland was restocking Ny’Air’s asthma medication. “It’s more commutable now,” she said of her new location.

“Up De Ruad, I never used to let him go outside because of the commotion, the threat of danger, the poor, unsafe building conditions,” Desirea said. “But right now, I can at least have some comfortability when it comes down to my thoughts and surroundings.”

Desirea Pate, 27, was displaced from her apartment building on De Ruad Street in West Oakland following a fire there on Aug. 17. She's been staying at a hotel in Green Tree with her 9-year-old son, Ny'Air Parks. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Desirea Pate and her 9-year-old son have slept in two emergency housing spaces in the 11 days following the De Ruad apartment fire, and they’ll likely be in for a third location soon.

On Monday, Desirea was informed that the funding that covered her and her neighbors’ lodging and meals at the DoubleTree Hotel in Green Tree has run out. She’s unsure which organization sponsored her stay. On Tuesday, she said she was told they had two more days before they’d have to leave.

Ny’Air missed his first day of third grade on Monday. Desirea said that a Pittsburgh Weil representative informed her that transportation to get her son from Green Tree to school in the Hill District would be covered, but that it hadn’t been established yet. At present, the commute would take an hour on a city bus. A shuttle sent by the school would cut the ride in half, Desirea said.

“I talked to them yesterday. His school wasn’t able to get transportation to him. They said the transportation would be in effect by Thursday or next week. My thing is we’re only here ’til Friday, so it’s like once y’all do get things on the ball for transportation for school, I’m not going to be here,” she said.

Desirea Pate's 9-year-old son, Ny'Air, plays Super Smash Bros Ultimate on his Nintendo Switch while they stay at a hotel in Green Tree. Desirea is uncertain where she and her son will call home next. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

While Desirea has been told by AHRCO that her apartment was cleared for temporary reentry, Desirea decided not to retrieve their belongings. Ny’Air has asthma, and she worried she’d be putting his health at risk.

“I don’t want to keep putting stress on him,” she said. “He has bad asthma. It’s pointless getting our stuff from that environment with all the smoke damage and triggering the asthma.”

Desirea believes that Ny’Air’s last three asthma attacks were triggered by poor ventilation inside the building owned by AHRCO.

Stability can’t come soon enough for Desirea and Ny’Air. She said her questions are going unanswered, the resources she needs are falling through the cracks and Ny’Air’s transportation to and from school is up in the air. The family’s most troubling shortfall has been their access to what Ny’Air depends on the most. “I was just looking at Ny’Air’s inhaler the other day. ...His inhaler will be gone by the end of this week.” The pharmacy that refills her son’s inhaler prescription is in Oakland. The bus stop closest to the hotel that would lead to Oakland is about a mile away.

Nicole Nelson, 23, and her son, Pharaoh Farrish, 2, were among those displaced by a fire on De Ruad Street in West Oakland on Aug. 17. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Nicole Nelson woke to the sound of pounding at her door and a shout to wake up from her neighbor: There was a fire in the building. Initial suspicion subsided as the weight of the words began to sink in. She was able to exit safely with her 2-year-old son in tow. “It was horrible, bad…just horrible.”

The day after the Aug. 17 fire, Red Cross provided Nicole and other displaced residents some of the essentials. “A toothbrush, shampoo, a hotel room, but no money, no donations. Nothing long term like that.”

Moving from the convention center to a hotel in Green Tree with her son, 23-year-old Nicole is searching for a more optimal and long-term solution. The hotel feels far from Nicole’s native Hill District and it’s a long walk to the nearest bus station. Nicole uses public transit to get to work.

She’s taking the time this week to search for a new place and to fill out housing applications. Worried about what happens once the Red Cross support goes away, Nicole is left wondering what will come next. Lisa Landis, marketing and communications manager from the Red Cross, said the organization was one of many to assist with short-term emergency housing. She didn’t specify where residents were housed or for how long.

The issues with the De Ruad apartment building did not begin or end with the fire for Nicole. A resident of the building for the past three years, she began to describe several grievances she’s seen in the building, including drug use and rodents.

She recounted opening her door and seeing people who’d come in to use drugs unconscious in the hallway. Living conditions were further complicated by a rodent infestation. After seeing five mice in her own apartment, Nicole notified maintenance. Following inspection, the maintenance team reported back. “They told me they saw nothing. No signs of any mice.” Following this incident, Nicole said she continued to see the rodents not only in her own apartment, but also elsewhere throughout the building.

“I have a 2-year-old son I have to look after,” she said. With the help of a friend and neighbor down the hall, another young mother, living there was somewhat more manageable.

Rather than stay with his partner and two children in a hotel opened up to other residents affected by the De Ruad Street fire, he’s paid $25 per night for a room in a Homewood boarding house.

His partner, Shawna Patrick, is receiving aid because she lived in an AHRCO-owned apartment on De Ruad Street full time. Christopher only lived there part time, staying elsewhere some nights each week.

So even though he often stayed with his family on De Ruad Street, he doesn’t have documentation as a permanent resident. He said the Red Cross has pressed him for information about how long he’s stayed with Shawna.

“That's what they keep stressing, ‘How long have you been living there?’ But if I'm a caregiver, it means I'm there every day,” he said. “So they're like, ‘Oh, well, we can't prove that. Do you have an ID with your updated information to prove that you live there?’ I lost everything.”

Lisa Landis, a Red Cross spokesperson, said the organization opened a case for everyone living in the 42 apartments burned in the fire. She said the Red Cross received a list of leaseholders from AHRCO and then asked each leaseholder how many people lived with them.

Immediately after the fire, Christopher spent three nights in the Red Cross shelter in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Since then, he has been visiting food banks, doing landscaping work for clients and caring for his third child, who currently stays with a family friend in Wilkinsburg. If he can, he takes the bus. Otherwise, he walks. When he has to cut a client’s lawn, his uncle will drive his lawnmower to the job site, and Christopher will get there on his own. He’s able to take his weed wacker on the bus.

“You gotta remember, every time I go out, I have to pay the bus to get there, I don't have a vehicle,” he said. “And I have to maintain my own machines and equipment, so every time I make that $40 or $20, it's like I'm making a profit of $10 or $15.”

Christopher is hopeful his situation could change soon, though. He said he’s in touch with a lawyer about finding more stable living conditions for him, Shawna and their children.

Several local organizations have been working to help residents displaced by the fire. Duquesne University's Office of Community Engagement has compiled a list of resources and needed items here. AHRCO has directed residents or organizations wish to help to contact a local organization called I Dream a World at (412) 894-8988.

Oliver Morrison can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org. Jourdan Hicks can be reached at jourdan@publicsource.org. Daniel Walsh can be reached at daniel@publicsource.org. J. Dale Shoemaker can be reached at dale@publicsource.org. Remy Davison can be reached at remy@publicsource.org.

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By increasing the visibility of climate coverage, PublicSource will be giving the climate story the attention and prominence that scientists have long said it demands. Our reporting aims to equip local residents with the information they need to take action.

We have five weeks to raise $5,000. The focused reporting will publish between Sept. 16 and Sept. 26. The timing is not incidental: On Sept. 23, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will host the landmark international Climate Action Summit in New York.

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