PITTSFIELD — An inferno sped through a four-family Lincoln Street home last month, then spread to the Cherry Street apartment building next door, where Jessica Thomas lived with her 9-year-old son, Owen.
Twelve families in the city’s Morningside neighborhood, most with school-aged children, lost their homes April 22. Three weeks later, their lives are in flux, as assistance wears thin and new apartments prove scarce.
After the fires were out, Thomas, 38, was able to get inside her apartment and grab a few belongings, which she and her son took with them to the Holiday Inn on West Street, where displaced residents have been staying with funding largely raised and disbursed by the Christian Center.
When Thomas returned to Cherry Street a few weeks later, she discovered that her apartment had been plundered. Her furniture flipped. Her jewelry missing.
“I can’t keep rebuilding,” she said. “My savings is gone.”
Thomas had come back to find documents — including birth certificates — that she needs. She’s now trying to leave Pittsfield, and planned to drive to Florida, where Owen’s father lives.
“Two fires in less than a year and a half. I’m gonna take it as a sign and not take another apartment” in Pittsfield, she said.
Like at least one other displaced resident, this is the second time she lost everything in a fire in a building operated by Cavalier Management.
“We just got done with a fire. We weren’t even here a year and it happens again. And once again, we get no help. My landlord won’t even answer the phone for us,” she said. “My last fire, I lost everything, all my pictures, my kids’ baby books, those things I can’t replace. And then here we were, trying to make new memories. And all my new pictures are broken, stepped on.”
On Friday afternoon, she and Owen sat outside their old Cherry Street apartment. Thomas she said she is waiting to recoup last month’s rent from Cavalier Management and said she’s had difficulty contacting the management company.
The company’s owner, Rich Altman, denies being hard to reach, and said Saturday he believes some tenants received last month’s rent back already. More will soon, as the company works with its insurer.
“Whoever is entitled to last month’s rent is going to get it back,” he said. “Anything that anyone is owed, they will get.”
He called the fire a “terrible” event for tenants, two of whom Altman said the company placed in other Cavalier-managed properties. The firm, he said, has no more units available. “We have no apartments for rent, at all,” Altman said.
The Christian Center put up money to board nine families at the Holiday Inn after the fire, said Karen Ryan, who directs the food program and other services for the nonprofit. The support to fire victims comes through private donations and funding from the United Way, as well as the city’s fire fund, which the center administers.
Hotel clock ticking down
Thomas, Owen and their dog, Oliver, a short-haired golden retriever, stayed at the Holiday Inn until late last week. Thomas said administrators asked them to leave the hotel after a fire alarm went off, prompting Owen and Oliver to run for an exit, though she says she wasn’t told why they could not remain.
“They just booked it. They were getting out. They didn’t want to be in the building,” she said of her son and dog.
Of the dozen families displaced, four lived in each of the three buildings — two on Lincoln Street and one on Cherry — that were condemned due to fire damage.
Some families have moved out of the hotel and in with family or friends, Ryan said. She said the center is still assisting five families with lodging at the Holiday Inn, the ones that include children.
But their time in the hotel is limited, Ryan said, and the goal is for the families to find new apartments. The problem, she acknowledges, is that “there’s just no housing” in Pittsfield. As displaced residents look toward rebuilding, they’re facing obstacles.
Namely, a dearth of available — let alone affordable — rental properties in Pittsfield.
“People have been looking and looking, and there’s just no apartments available,” Ryan said.
The clock is ticking. She said the Holiday Inn told the Christian Center that residents displaced from Cherry and Lincoln streets can stay for about one more week. After that, Ryan was told, the hotel is booked.
‘Mom, we have to get out!’
Elizabeth Daniels, 38, lived in the Lincoln Street building, next door to the one in which the fire started. When the fire broke out, she and and three of her children ran outside.
“Mom, we have to get out of the house!” she recalled her son telling her. The fire brought back bad memories, she said.
Like Thomas, it marked the second time she was forced from a Cavalier-managed apartment by fire.
“We were standing there watching everything crash down again,” she said. “The sad part is, there’s no funding for any of us. Like here we are, all homeless, staying at a hotel and there’s no funding. The only ones that seems to be helping is the Christian Center and Morningside school.”
Daniels has four children, ages 7 though 17, including a 13-year-old with severe autism. Her oldest is staying with her sister in Connecticut, leaving the mother, her fiancé, Shawn, and three children crowded into the hotel room.
When she isn’t at work six days a week at her job at Hot Harry’s and Angelina’s Subs, she homeschools her children, which now takes place in the hotel room.
Staying in the hotel has been “absolute hell” for her children, she said in a telephone interview, pausing periodically to coax her son into putting his shoes on. Her 7-year-old daughter has a duel diagnosis of ADHD and severe anxiety.
Before the fire, her daughter’s symptoms had improved to the point where her doctor weaned her off her prescription medicines. But after the fire, those symptoms returned.
“We have an appointment with the doctor next week to get her back on medication, which is unfair, because she was doing great without it,” Daniels said. “She’s literally having mental breakdowns ... three times a day.”
Daniels said she prepares meals for her family in a microwave the hotel provided at her request. She spends some of her little spare time calling landlords, in hopes of finding an apartment for her family, with help from a representative of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.
She’s hoping that a lead at Berkshire Peak Apartments on West Street comes through for her and her children, but getting in there could take weeks, she said, and continuing to stay in a hotel would eat up both her and her fiancé’s paychecks, leaving little for food or other expenses.
After the fire, the Red Cross provided a few hundred dollars to displaced residents. While helpful, Daniels said it didn’t last long. Between juggling school with full-time work, Daniels is working through a list of landlords, and growing exasperated, with nothing panning out, or the rent too expensive.
Cavalier’s insurance company is offering a $750 relocation payment to displaced residents who provide receipts documenting their hotel stays, but that money hasn’t come through yet.
“I’ve looked at two different apartments that were over $1,500. Every other one I emailed they don’t respond to you, or you need like a 600 credit score, and you need to pay $40 to do an application,” she said. “I don’t have that.” She had been paying $950 a month before.
On Cherry Street on Friday, a gnarled pile of metal, wood and plastic, once Thomas’ and her neighbors’ belongings, lies strewn on the ground outside.
Owen, a freckled, red-headed boy who dreams of becoming a firefighter or police officer, played with a tree branch. He tore a sprig off of a tree and brought it to his nose and said it smelled of green apple.
Beside him, his mother’s sedan was running, keeping the air conditioning on for Oliver. Their belongings were piled up inside the vehicle. They’d slept in the car the night before, and planned to bunk there again that evening.
The block has been eerily quiet since the fire displaced approximately 30 people, said David Thayer, who lives in a home next to Thomas’ former apartment.
“It kind of feels like a ghost town almost, because you’re used to so many people out here,” he said.
Inside his old apartment, Owen navigated around items on the floor of the bedraggled space that was once his bedroom, holding up a glass cage. It was once the home of his leopard gecko, “Tap Tap,” who died in the fire after its enclosure filled with water firefighters poured down on the blaze.
“Tap Tap” is now buried in Thayer’s yard, under a white stone. Thayer’s son, Rowan, 6, and Owen are friends, and before the fire were just two of many kids who played in the area.
It’s an area, Thayer said, whose residents came together to help their own. Thayer said he babysat, and he and other neighbors pitched in to donate toys to some of the children who lost their home.
The area drew thieves after the fire.
“The local people in our little community are trying to help each other out,” Thayer said. “But definitely, we’ve had some bad actors up here. ... People are going to take advantage of people’s misfortune, but that’s just the world we live in.”
As for what sparked the blaze, multiple neighbors reported seeing a grill on the second-story, front porch of 110-118 Lincoln St. catch fire on Friday, April 22.
However, Fire Chief Thomas Sammons said Friday that investigators didn’t find a grill there.
He said that after interviewing residents, fire investigators determined the fire was caused by someone carelessly disposing of smoking materials on the second-story front porch.
The blaze accelerated when it met with “flammable fluid” on the porch, according to Sammons, where gas-powered remote-controlled cars were stored.
“It turned out that the only thing it could be, the only thing it possibly could have been, was smoking,” he said.