Nearly six months ago, on Aug. 17, residents of the De Ruad Street apartments in West Oakland watched their homes go up in flames.

The five-alarm fire left seventeen units uninhabitable in the low-income apartment complex owned by Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation [AHRCO]. Some residents lost everything.

AHRCO’s president said the company found places for all 17 of the households within a week, but only nine took them up on the offer. A few families were offered housing in the Hill District; some families took housing offered in West Mifflin, but about half the families held out to find more housing near where they lived before because moving so far away would be a burden on them.

Another three families whose units were not declared uninhabitable decided they needed to move as well because they were worried about how the smoky buildings would impact their health, according Cassandra Williams, community relations manager for Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle.

PublicSource checked in with four of the 20 De Ruad Street households over the past six months. Some residents described the assistance they received as slow in coming and not enough to make up for all that they lost. That meant their lives were in limbo for weeks or months.

AHRCO, local elected leaders, nonprofits, universities and local government agencies provided residents with help including temporary shelter, gift cards and bus passes. They brought them hot meals when they were in temporary shelter and helped them obtain new ID cards.

Some residents complained that AHRCO wasn’t adequately repairing their apartments before the fires and wasn’t doing enough afterward to help.

In response, Lara Washington, the president of AHRCO, promised to start meeting with residents more frequently and to educate them about the importance of carrying renter’s insurance to cover losses from a fire. The company has also said that repairs were made in a timely manner.

“We have 3,000 residents and a majority of them are very happy with their housing and there are always going to be dissenters and we are open to that and we want to hear from them as well,” said Washington, who described the company’s response in a Dec. 2 entry.

For low-income residents already struggling to get by, having to start over again made life even more difficult.

The Aug. 17 De Ruad Street fire displaced 17 households. Another three households sought other housing because of smoke damage. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Geraldine Shields grew frustrated trying to replace the more than 15 years worth of belongings. She worried that her mental health was impacted, as she adjusted to living more than an hour’s bus ride from her home and friends of more than 15 years.

Devin McClain refused the housing offered to him by AHRCO because his job and the network he relied upon was still in the Hill District. He remained homeless for months afterward, bouncing between friends’ apartments.

Desirea Pate couldn’t find transportation for her son Ny’Air to get safely to school until the beginning of November. She had to turn down jobs as she waited for permanent housing to come through.

And then for Pate, another devastating fire happened.

Not long after finding permanent housing in West Oakland above a nonprofit where Ny’Air could get tutoring help, she was awoken in the middle of the night by a police officer.

Her building was on fire. A downed power line was the likely culprit of the Jan. 12 fire.

So a few days later, when Desirea and Ny’Air returned, they found a hole in the hallway and Ny’Air’s things in disarray: his mattress, bed frame, sheets, curtains, rug and some clothing were all ruined.

“I can’t believe it mom,” Ny’Air told her repeatedly. “I can’t believe this happened again.”

Facing adversity after the Aug. 17 fire, four households shared the story of how they coped with unexpected displacement and a quest for stability.

Devin McClain

Former De Ruad Street resident Devin McClain setting his hand on the trunk of a tree in the front yard of the Hill District house where his grandmother used to live. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

On a recent January afternoon, Devin McClain stopped at the vacant lot in the Hill District where his grandmother’s house used to be. The lot was overgrown with bushes and scattered with litter.

He hadn’t been back in years, he said, and pointed to a scar in the bark of a tree out front. He remembered that scar from when his uncle had taken a bat to it. But it seemed like the mark had moved, a little, he said, slowly rubbing the front of his hand against the tree as if he could still feel his childhood in the roughness of the bark.

Devin, now 38, moved into his grandma’s house in ninth grade with his mom and his sister, right around the time his father died. He got kicked out of Schenley High School that year after a fight and ended up busing to Brashear High School until graduation.

The home is a block away from where Devin’s dad grew up, he said, and about a block away from where playwright August Wilson grew up. It’s not far from the site of the Civic Arena, which was built when his parents were growing up, after mass displacement of residents in the Lower Hill District.

When Devin watched his apartment building catch fire on Aug. 17, he was in the process of being evicted and had already moved most of his stuff out. Some residents had lived in the building for many years, but Devin had only been there about two years.

Home has rarely been a source of stability. He spent his early years at the end of a newly built middle class cul-de-sac in the Hill District with both parents. But divorce, death and drug addiction in his family made the rest of his childhood tough.

He made it to his senior year of college before falling behind and dropping out. Since then, he’s lived in many buildings, sometimes stayed with family, sometimes with friends, often paying income-adjusted rent; he has been evicted more than once, lived out of a truck for nine months and spent another five months living out of a tent off Fifth Avenue in the woods.

Landing an apartment on De Ruad Street in 2017, where for a time he paid only $25 per month in rent, was a godsend. He was less than a year removed from homelessness then and the person he’d been living with previously didn’t have hot water, so he had to boil water on the stove to take a bath.

Instead of just a physical home, he has built a small community of friends and associates in the Hill District. He said he earned a reputation as a trustworthy errand runner, who would walk across the Birmingham Bridge to pick up alcohol and cigarettes from the South Side. He helped older people clean up their homes and tried to notify other residents to get out of the building when it caught fire.

AHRCO offered him another apartment after the fire but the new apartment was located an hour away by bus, he said. Not only would that be a long commute to his cleaning job on the South Side, but he would lose his second income running errands that he needed to survive. He has to pay $200 in child support; he said his $1,000 in regular income is very little after child support and the few hundred dollars he’s charged for rent, a payment that increased with his income.

He was able to draw on Hill District friendships to find places to sleep after the fire. He lived out of garbage bags of clothes in a storage locker he rented for $50 per month. He said he keeps his work clothes in a crate downstairs at the bar he works at and, every now and then, will bring them back to the locker and do laundry.

Sometimes the stress gets to him. During the aftermath of the fire, he yelled at police officers who showed up at a protest against AHRCO. During his eviction proceedings, he sometimes lost his cool. His landlord said neighbors complained about noise from his apartment at night.

Devin McClain outside of the apartment he lost to the Aug. 17 fire. His landlord later evicted him. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

He’s also generous. During a recent afternoon, an old man crossed the street to thank him and repay him for loaning him $4. He cleaned the houses of the friends who took him in. He called to check up on a local man whose health was failing. He has volunteered at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen where he found himself eating more frequently.

He recently revisited the site where he lived out of a tent for five months, about a half-mile down Fifth Avenue from De Ruad Street. Someone else had put up a tent in the same spot he once called home.

Devin was evicted from his De Ruad apartment, even after the fire made it uninhabitable, and he hasn’t been able to find another place nearby that he can afford. He is homeless, though he has so far been able to find a place to stay.

A friend of his has offered to let him sublet their apartment. But it’s about an hour away.

He said he would be sad to leave the Hill District, but he said, “I don’t know what my other options are right now.”

Read our previous entries on Devin.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Geraldine Shields

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

Geraldine Shields lost everything in the fire: pictures of her son, her 3-year-old guppy fish, her birth certificate and all of her clothes, shoes and TVs. She had lived at De Ruad Street since 2004.

“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 a couple weeks after the fire.

AHRCO found Geraldine a new apartment in West Mifflin, about an hour away by bus, within a week of the fire.

The transition wasn’t easy. She said she felt isolated, away from people who she would normally ask for rides. She started smoking more. Her back hurt from the air mattress she was sleeping on. When a PublicSource reporter and photographer initially visited her, gunshots were heard down the road, and Geraldine guided everyone inside for protection.

While support agencies provided some basic food and a gift certificate to Giant Eagle, she said the support for other basics, like clothing and furniture, took weeks to materialize. She spent many hours sitting on her air mattress watching the TV she had borrowed.

She said clothing she was initially offered was smelly or didn’t fit. A mattress provided sank in when she sat on it. Eventually she did get some nicer clothes donated but not enough to protect her from the winter. She had a long list of phone numbers to call for help but it was stressful and she said people often didn’t call her back. On a fixed income, it takes time to buy back all of the things she accumulated over the years.

At De Ruad Street, she wasn’t responsible for paying utilities but that was different in her new place. She had a washer and dryer in her old apartment. After the move, her friend Joe took her dirty laundry on the bus back to the HIll District and brought back cleaned clothes.

Still, she said she liked that her new apartment had grass out front and a porch in the back. She started up some new routines, like walking to the store to get basic groceries, chatting with a neighbor she met and jogging around a nearby field. She began painting her new apartment as a way to make it her own and give her something to do to calm her mind.

But then, a couple of months after she’d started to settle in, she was told that she’d have to move again. She’d been given a two-bedroom apartment, like her old place. But since her son had moved out long ago, her subsidy only covered a one-bedroom unit and she couldn’t afford the market rate for a two bedroom. She was in limbo and felt like she’d wasted money and time making her new apartment more comfortable. Shields last provided PublicSource with an update in December.

But before her move, she said she felt both anxious and stagnant. “I’m frustrated, overwhelmed,” she said. “Nothing has changed. I’m just living, I’m just here.”

Read our previous entries on Geraldine.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

Former De Ruad Street resident Desirea Pate in the West Oakland apartment that she’d hoped to make a permanent home for herself and son Ny’Air. The building caught fire Jan. 12. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)
Former De Ruad Street resident Desirea Pate in the West Oakland apartment that she’d hoped to make a permanent home for herself and son Ny’Air. The building caught fire Jan. 12. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Desirea Pate and Ny’Air are living comfortably in their new apartment in the Hill District. Ny’Air, who turns 10 on Feb. 27, is doing well in school and likes their new home.

But last month, Desirea and Ny’Air again lost what they thought was their permanent home to a fire.

In the early hours of Jan. 12, Desirea Pate woke up to banging at the back door of their apartment in West Oakland. A few hours earlier, she’d called 9-1-1 after hearing an electric transformer blow out nearby. She figured it was someone coming to update her. Instead, a police officer was rushing to inform her that the building was on fire.

Ny’Air was visiting relatives that night, but firefighters entered the building through a window in Ny’Air’s room, and his belongings took the brunt of the damage.

“I feel so bad. Everything in his room just has broken glass in it, or smoke damage, water damage. It’s terrible.” she said after the fire.

Desirea said she was able to grab some essentials from the apartment. Now she and Ny’Air are starting over again. “I don’t even know where to start with replacing things again.”

Her landlord reserved a room for her and Ny’Air at a hotel in Uptown for one week and organized a GoFundMe account on her behalf. With the funds, Desirea was able to replace a lot of the personal items they lost in the fire.

“Ny’Air’s room really got hit the worst,” she said. “We lost his bedroom set, curtains…Anything that was laying out in his room had major smoke and water damage.”

Before the January fire, Desirea said she was starting to feel settled after being displaced by the Aug. 17 fire on De Ruad Street.

Since then, she said every decision she made had centered on finding permanent housing, while taking care of her 9-year-old son’s health, education and self-esteem along with maintaining her own positive mental health.

“It was hard juggling so many important things all at once and having to do them all perfectly,” Desirea said about the past several months. “I felt all the pressure.”

Desirea said she felt pressure to get things together fast, get back to work and get Ny’Air settled in school. Referencing stigma facing Black single mothers who require social service assistance, Desirea said she felt judgment for needing help making ends meet in the first month after the fire.

Organizations and community groups provided food, toiletries and transportation early on, but some assistance since the fire came with amount of stipulations and oversight, which she said made her feel like there was an expectation that she would be dishonest or misuse her resources.

Desirea Pate's 9-year-old son Ny'Air plays Super Smash Bros Ultimate on his Nintendo Switch in their hotel room in Green Tree just after the De Ruad Street fire.(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Desirea Pate’s 9-year-old son Ny’Air plays Super Smash Bros Ultimate on his Nintendo Switch in their hotel room in Green Tree just after the De Ruad Street fire.(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Desirea Pate’s 9-year-old son Ny’Air plays Super Smash Bros Ultimate on his Nintendo Switch in their hotel room in Green Tree just after the De Ruad Street fire.(Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

She hopes by sharing her story that people will better understand the hurdles facing single-parent households with limited financial resources.

“A lot of us are dealing in crisis mode all the time. It’s unfair,” Desirea said. “People are literally making the best decisions they can with what they have.”

In November, Desirea began working at a securities firm in Carnegie. She had to resign. Work was conflicting with the appointments she needed to attend with the housing authority to continue to receive housing assistance.

“I needed whole days off to attend my housing briefings. I had maybe three or four meetings since I started working.”

She had an interview with another securities firm, this time in Pittsburgh but decided that she needed to dedicate her time to getting resettled after the January fire.

As she and Ny’Air move into the next phase of their lives, she hopes the other former De Ruad Street residents can find success and happiness in their new homes, too.

Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of such adversity has pushed her toward a more “spiritual place,” she said.

Read our previous entries on Desirea and Ny’Air.

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

Christopher Green at the Hill District apartment where Shawna Patrick and their children are living. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Immediately after the fire, Christopher Green and Shawna Patrick stayed at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for three nights. The Red Cross helped Shawna Patrick relocate to a temporary hotel with their children, who’d been saying with family. But Green did not receive assistance because he was not on the lease at De Ruad Street and was only staying with the family part time.

He rented a room in a Homewood boarding house and remains there. Shawna and the kids have been living in their new apartment in the Hill District since late September.

The instability took a toll on Christopher.

“The stress has been killing me,” he said at the time. “The not knowing. The rushing… I’ve been burnt out.”

Christopher worked multiple landscaping jobs across the city to afford his rent and help support his family. Often, he only made about $10 to $15 per day to help his family.

Christopher said the local nonprofit FOCUS Pittsburgh has been helping their children get to school by providing Port Authority bus passes.

Until they received assistance with bus passes, the children had to walk more than a mile to school because their new apartment was too close to be included in the school bus route.

Now, life feels more normal. Shawna and the kids are settled, and Christopher said he is focusing on work.

Read our previous entries on Christopher, Shawna and their family.

—By PublicSource editorial intern Grace McGinniss

Previous entries

Lara Washington, president of AHRCO, and Deirdre Washington, founder of I Dream a World

(Published Dec. 2, 2019)

When Lara Washington, the president of the Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation [AHRCO], heard about the Aug. 17 apartment fire on De Ruad Street, she was running a family errand. She turned the car around, she said, and drove to the scene.

Using a list of residents, she and her team confirmed that everyone had made it out safely — her biggest worry, she said. The smoke alarms, emergency lighting and emergency exits all worked, she said.

But getting residents out safely was just the beginning. Three of the 11 buildings were deemed uninhabitable after the fire, and many of those residents found temporary shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It wouldn’t be easy to find them new places to stay: It typically takes more than a year for residents on AHRCO’s waiting list to find a unit, Washington said.

She and her staff holed up in a conference room at AHRCO’s headquarters in East Liberty for four days after the fire. On a blackboard, they listed the names of each of the 17 displaced families and the size apartment they would need.

They also listed each of the apartments that had recently become vacant and the work needed to get them ready. There was another column for whether they could handle the repairs in-house or would need to hire a contractor. She called up other landlords in the Hill District to see what other properties were available.

Some displaced residents criticized AHRCO’s management practices after the fire, complaining of poor upkeep. In Lara’s view, the company responds quickly to complaints and also worked proactively to find housing for residents after the fire.

“It was kind of a huge puzzle,” Washington said of relocation efforts.

Deirdre Washington, founder of I Dream a World, outside of her office at AHRCO’s Three Rivers Manor in Spring Garden. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)
Deirdre Washington, founder of I Dream a World, outside of her office at AHRCO’s Three Rivers Manor in Spring Garden. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

When Washington was a child, she used to ride around with her father, Milton, and watch as he interacted with residents at AHRCO’s properties. She said helping low-income residents is what the company has always been about.

In 1968, Milton started as vice president of the low-income housing company at a time when redlining still made it difficult for many Black residents in Pittsburgh to secure housing. He and three other Black men purchased the company in 1974. Lara recalled a time several years later when a businessman set up a meeting with her father about developing one of AHRCO’s senior homes.

“My father just stared at him and said, ‘Where are all of our residents going to go?’ It was the shortest meeting. The developers just packed up their things and left,” she said. “That’s not what he was in it for. He was in it for providing an affordable place to live.”

In 2008, Washington returned to Pittsburgh to become president of AHRCO, after a career in Washington, D.C., as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Her father continued to work, even in his retirement, visiting properties until the day before his death in 2016.

According to Washington, AHRCO had identified new apartments for all 17 families within four days in the fire. The properties included units outside of the city, meaning some residents were displaced from their old neighborhood. Nine of the families took AHRCO up on the offer. Seven families —including households that were still living in temporary accommodations for a week or more after the fire — pursued housing through other avenues. One individual declined AHRCO’s offer but has not found housing.

Deirdre Washington, who is unrelated to Lara, sat in on meetings with displaced families. She is the founder of I Dream a World, a company that helps residents deal with some of the underlying issues that could prevent them from paying their rent.

“It felt like some relief,” Deirdre said. “You may not have the place you want right now, it may not be on the Hill but you have something, you are not homeless.”

At the convention center, an elderly resident, who’d lost everything, started crying and asked her, “What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?”

“People look at it like they didn’t have a whole lot,” she said. “But that was their stuff and their memories and their keepsakes.”

Deirdre Washington, founder of I Dream a World, holding a painting she painted in her office. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

In 2015, Deirdre started working out of an AHRCO office as a go-between with residents. She said she feels that residents trust her more than they do building managers. She keeps their stories confidential but will intervene on residents’ behalf to delay evictions if residents show they are addressing the problem, for instance, by taking financial literacy classes. Sometimes it means connecting them with a mental health counselor.

“I know there are a lot of issues people are working with. But I also believe in accountability. At some point you have to say, ‘What am I going to do about it? We all know we have issues. Are you going to keep crying about these issues or say, ‘Look, let me get the help that I need to get over these issues.’”

After the fire, AHRCO gave the displaced families some of the basic necessities they would need to get back on their feet, including air mattresses, pots and pans, food baskets and bus passes. AHRCO and I Dream a World solicited and organized donations to help residents get new clothes and furniture. Lara said they also helped residents get new birth certificates and driver’s licenses lost in the fire.

Lara said she believes that most of the roughly 3,000 residents in AHRCO properties are happy. But she said she is aware of criticism directed at the company and said she is willing to listen and learn from it. She’s committed to holding more meetings to educate residents about fire safety, building maintenance and housekeeping concerns, in part because of the complaints she read about in PublicSource’s reporting. The company has around 1,700 units.

She’s also trying to highlight the importance of renter’s insurance, which can make recovering from an event like a fire easier for residents.

Deirdre said insurance costs roughly $15 per month, but convincing residents with financial difficulties to pay can be difficult.

“I just tell them: ‘Make it a part of your budget. It’s only 50 cents a day if that,’” she said. “It’s about a bag of chips for your child.”

Three more AHRCO units in the Hill District have since opened up for families to return to the neighborhood. Some families have chosen to stay in new apartments elsewhere.

Lara said she wasn’t sure what would happen with AHRCO’s insurance claim from the fire but she was committed to rebuilding on the same land.

“Right now, our plan is to get all 20 units back online as soon as we can,” she said.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week one: Devin McClain

(Published Aug. 28, 2019)

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)
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)
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.”
—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week two: Devin McClain

(Published Sept. 4, 2019)

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 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.

Week three: Devin McClain

(Published Sept. 11, 2019)

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.

Week four: Devin McClain

(Published Sept. 18, 2019)

Devin McClain received some new clothes and food at an event for fire victims at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Saturday. He came away with a couple of shirts, a couple pairs of pants and a case of blueberry-pecan and chocolate-almond-mint granola bars.

“They told me to take as many as I could carry,” he said. “I’ve got a whole case of granola bars, probably 100 granola bars in here.”

An elderly couple in his old De Ruad Street building gave him a flier for the event, which about 15 other De Ruad residents attended, along with church officials and local politicians, he said. He feels that local politicians avoided him at the event because, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, he had called their offices and cussed them out for not providing him useful support after the fire.

He did find one friendly voice at the event: Paul D’Alesandro, an aide for U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle. D’Alesandro wrote Devin’s phone number on the back of his business card, and Devin said D’Alesandro was interested in his idea that Pittsburgh Public Schools should offer more driver’s education training to students in poverty. Devin said D’Alesandro told him that he too, grew up in poverty and seemed to relate to Devin, who said he “kind of grew up in the middle of the crack era.”

“We’re going to be touching base with some foundations to see where the workforce development dollars are going since this is a real need for people once they do get a job and the training,’ D’Alesandro said Wednesday. “This is something we’ve heard before and something we would like to help this gentleman with.”

Devin didn’t have money for driver’s education classes when he was in high school living with his aunt. He failed the parallel parking portion of his driver’s test and said he never took it again.

He owned a sea-foam green GMC Sierra 1500 for about nine months, he said. But he got pulled over for driving without a license in January 2013, on his way home from seeing his newborn son, who is now 6. He recently paid off the fine and is eligible to get his learner’s permit again, he said. He’s advocated several times to local leaders over the years to provide funding for driver’s training but didn’t feel like he received a positive response until Saturday.

Not having a car is one of the reasons he doesn’t see his son, he said. It’s also one of the main reasons he wasn’t able to accept the new apartment he was offered in New Kensington after the fire. It was too far to take the bus to his work.

“I don’t own a car, can’t do that on the bus every day, not to mention if I have to work a Saturday night, how am I going to get home?” Devin said.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week five: Devin McClain

(Published Sept. 25, 2019)

Devin McClain had been meaning to drop his resume off at a beer distributor on the South Side for weeks.

He’s lost the extra income he used to make running errands for people in his building, which caught fire Aug. 17. A job at the distributor would help to make up the difference, but he procrastinated until a call from his cousin last week.

His cousin told him that Aramark was hiring at PPG Paints Arena, down the street from where Devin lives, at $13 an hour, full time, and that the company didn’t require him to have a driver’s license.

So after working at Rugger’s Pub from 7 to 11 a.m. on Tuesday — wiping walls, dumping the trash and picking up bottle caps and broken glass underneath the bar — he made his way Downtown to CareerLink to fill out an electronic application.

While he was there, he printed out five resumes and delivered one to the beer distributor. He’s been working in restaurants for years, he said, and applied there because he thinks he has a leg up: He knows how to recommend a good beer.

“If you say my favorite beer is a stout, you got Guinness, you got Murphy’s,” he said. “Left Hand Milk Stout is a really good beer, Loose Cannon makes a stout, Dogfish Head comes out with some good stouts once the weather gets cold.”

He took one of the resumes to a demolition site down the street from the Hill District apartment he is living in on Tuesday evening. He was hired on the spot and said he earned around $20 over two hours throwing building debris in the dumpster. But he didn’t know when that kind of opportunity would come again.

Devin worked for Aramark before as a college student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He got his first job with them as a freshman, his second day at the school, and earned minimum wage serving sandwiches and pizza in the student union. He said it wasn’t the kind of work he envisioned doing in college, but he needed money.

During his senior year, Devin got a job in the cafeteria at Aramark a second time, washing dishes. He dropped out of college that year.

“I changed my major in the middle of my second year and, with not much family support or nothing, I just kind of burned out,” he said. He started off as a computer science major and switched to communications, but his grades dropped and he said he lost motivation. He said he isn’t paying off his student loan debt and isn’t sure how much money he owes.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week six: Devin McClain

(Published Oct. 3, 2019)

Devin McClain scooped up the beef-a-roni that was being served for lunch at Jubilee Kitchen on Tuesday afternoon. The fan was whirring behind him as he ate; it was so hot Tuesday that Devin had taken off his shirt walking there from work.

“It makes me feel like you’re in one of those Rambo movies,” he said.

As he finished his coffee, the woman Devin had been staying with recently stopped by to pick up some of the take-home food Jubilee gives out. She had just left work. Devin put a couple of sandwiches in his backpack, and they walked back to the apartment together.

The woman lives in an apartment down the street from where Devin’s De Ruad Street apartment caught fire; both buildings are owned by AHRCO. As they entered, Devin pointed out that the apartment number had finally been added back to her door. Just the day before, Devin had watched repairmen fix several other items that the woman said needed to be fixed for months.

AHRCO had sent a notice to her a few days before saying residents needed to have their apartments cleaned for an inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. “It is vitally important that all smoke detectors are up and have batteries in them and they are working,” a letter signed by the property manager stated.

The woman said she believed the only reason the repairs were being made now was that the building was about to be inspected.

There were flowers out front on both sides of the front door that weren’t normally there. And there was a set of concrete steps on the side of the building that had been re-masoned that week, Devin said.

AHRCO president Lara Washington said the HUD inspection had already been scheduled and didn’t have anything to do with the fire at the De Ruad Street apartments. She said it is normal to do a pre-inspection and make repairs before HUD visits. Work orders are handled separately.

Devin McClain looks at a mural at Jubilee Kitchen. The artist included Devin’s likeness in the piece. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)
Devin McClain looks at a mural at Jubilee Kitchen. The artist included Devin’s likeness in the piece. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

“We do our best to address work orders in a timely fashion,” Washington said. She didn’t say how long residents typically wait for repairs.

Getting these repairs done was important to the woman in part because she had to attend a custody case the next day. Her children had been living with grandparents, and she said the quality of her apartment could impact the case.

Devin was sleeping in their old bedroom, which still had toy trucks, stuffed animals and a towel with the image of cartoon characters hanging on the wall.

She instinctively wanted to help Devin after the fire because she said he’s always been there for her. “When I am going through my depression, he’s there,” she said. “When I’m broke, he’s there.”

Devin started scrubbing the walls of the bedroom Tuesday, as the woman rested on the couch. Devin pays back some of her hospitality by cleaning.

“Honestly, he’s the best roommate I’ve ever probably had,” she said.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week eight: Devin McClain

(Published Oct. 17, 2019)

Devin McClain at an Oct. 4 protest outside the office of Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation in East Liberty. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

On Oct. 4, Devin McClain walked to the East Liberty headquarters of AHRCO, owner of the burned apartments on De Ruad Street. He started a livestream on Facebook, showing a protest criticizing the company’s management practices.

As other protesters focused on the company, Devin started shouting at two men across the street who he said were plain-clothes police officers.

“This is the intimidation the city sends against us,” he said. “This is racist Pittsburgh at its finest.”

Devin has gone to protests throughout his life, he said, but this was the first time he was “one of the affected people.” Many of the protests he’s attended have been critical of police.

His first protest was when he was about 15 years old. He marched for two hours to protest the acquittal of a Brentwood officer who was involved in the death of Jonny Gammage.

Gammage, the cousin of former Pittsburgh Steeler Ray Seals, was pulled over in October 1995. He died of asphyxiation after several police officers put pressure on his chest and neck. Three of the officers were tried for involuntary manslaughter. An all-white jury acquitted one of the officers and trial of two other officers ended in a mistrial when the jury’s one black member disagreed with acquittal. Some of the protestors at the time compared Gammage’s death to the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, only without the video footage.

In college, Devin said he marched against wars in the Middle East. He got involved in protests when Leon Ford Jr. was shot and paralyzed by Pittsburgh police in 2012. (Ford later received a $5.5 million civil judgement.) Devin has marched against President Donald Trump. He said he was disappointed that he couldn’t attend the Women’s March after Trump’s election because he was working.

Devin said he typically is an “enthusiastic” protestor, out front, in the middle, shouting at the opposition. He doesn’t throw things and even once stopped another protestor who was about to, he said.

“Being a student of Black history teaches you about peaceful assembly,” he said.

As Devin started cursing at the two men across from AHRCO’s office and calling them pigs, a woman protesting beside him urged him to stop.

“For what?” Devin asked on his stream.

“Because I don’t want you go to jail,” she said. “I don’t have any money.”

Devin dared the men to arrest him for trespassing. He had been pulling on doors of the office, he said, because AHRCO employees had already left for the day.

In an email, AHRCO president Lara Washington said the company met with residents and community members before the rally and, as a result, committed to monthly meetings with residents going forward. For October, AHRCO agreed to discuss its maintenance and extermination policies and said residents will be asked for input on future topics. The meeting for AHRCO residents will be 1 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Center for Hearing & Deaf Services.

In the email, Washington wrote that 90% of its workforce is African American and the company has been serving the community for 50 years. “We are doing our best to provide housing for a population who needs our help in a city that doesn’t have many options for affordable housing.”

At the protest, Devin eventually turned his anger away from the police and toward the company.

For a moment, he acted as if he had forgotten that he is one of the people affected and started speaking as if he were reporting about something that happened to someone else.

“Live from 5654 Baum Boulevard, my name is Devin McClain,” he said. “It seems these residents are upset about the conditions they are living in…”

Later, Devin became tired and said he wished more people had come out for the protest. There were only about 20 people there, he said.

Then Devin saw a woman, who he doesn’t always get along with, holding a protest sign. “We butt heads, but we on the same team and I love her anyway, I love her still. I love her a lot,” he said.

The woman turned around and walked over to him and said quietly, “That’s right.” And Devin turned off his camera.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week 10: Devin McClain

(Published Oct. 30, 2019)

Devin McClain stands in front of his former apartment building. Before the building caught fire on Aug. 17, Devin was in the midst of an eviction case. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

On Oct. 22, Devin McClain walked about 30 minutes from a friend’s apartment to the City-County Building where he had a court appearance to challenge his eviction from his former De Ruad Street apartment.

“I don’t see how you can plan an eviction on property that’s burned down,” he said.

He took out the change in his pockets as he went through the metal detector at the entrance. He said it’s the only money he had and didn’t want to spend it on bus fare.

Devin took an elevator up to the sixth floor and took a seat against the window in Courtroom #16.

Devin’s case was first. He and a lawyer representing AHRCO got up. Judge Alan Hertzberg asked Devin why he missed his hearing the previous week.

“I missed the hearing because I was homeless and I haven’t been receiving any mail,” Devin explained. “My life is kind of uprooted by the fire.”

“He makes a good point,” Hertzberg said, addressing AHRCO’s lawyer. “His place had burned down, and he had no mailbox and it was hard to get notice.”

“They called him and he was at work,” the AHRCO lawyer responded.

After some back and forth, Devin responded: “Sir, I am poor. I flubbed the date. I’m sorry. I need money. I was at work. I pay $200 in child support. I’m trying to do more, I’m trying to do better. But I can’t keep doing it if I’m taking off of work.”

AHRCO’s lawyer responded and said that the money Devin owed was for rent payments he missed before his apartment caught fire. “This has nothing to do with the event,” the lawyer said.

Devin said he would understand if he isn’t allowed to live in an AHRCO building anymore, but he didn’t want an eviction on his civil court record because he said he had been making his escrow payments for rent before the fire and didn’t want a future landlord to use the case against him.

Hertzberg said he could vacate the eviction if neither Devin nor AHRCO would object because Devin’s apartment became uninhabitable. But he asked if Devin objected to the $2,811 AHRCO said Devin owes.

“That is unjust, sir, being that I lived in that apartment for five months without heat,” Devin said.

“So you don’t think you should pay full rent for the place?” Hertzberg asked.

Hertzberg reminded Devin that he would have to come to court again at 9 a.m. Oct. 31 to discuss the rent AHRCO said he owes. “I’m trying to help you out here,” Hertzberg said. “That’s the schedule.”

“Sir, I was hoping not to kick the can down the road anymore,” Devin said and then paused for several seconds. This was Devin’s fourth trip to court over his eviction in the last few months, twice to file appeals and twice to appear before Hertzberg. He didn’t want to have to come back again.

But Devin reconsidered. “I have to step back and remember this is a process. The judiciary is a process, and I just have to work with that,” he said after the hearing.

Devin smiled as he walked out of court. Devin was afraid the judge wouldn’t listen to him, but he was happy the judge said he might vacate his eviction.

“At least he gave me the chance to come and fight about the money,” Devin said.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week 15: Devin McClain

(Published Dec. 2, 2019)

Former De Ruad Street resident Devin McClain on Nov. 26. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

One of the most consequential decisions Devin McClain made at his housing court hearing happened before it even started.

Devin, who had still not found permanent housing near the end of November, was being taken to court by AHRCO because they claimed he owed nearly $3,000 in unpaid rent for his former De Ruad Street apartment.

Several dozen people filled the courtroom at the City-County Building on Oct. 31. A court worker had to shout to be heard. She was offering everyone in the room a chance to go to mediation, which would give them a chance at being represented by a pro bono lawyer.

A few people chose that route, but not Devin. He said he didn’t know what good a lawyer would do. “If they wanted to do things right, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I don’t understand why you want to sit down and talk now.”

Devin was already upset because he said AHRCO’s lawyer approached him before court with a three-page packet that listed all of the fines they said he owed. He balled it up.

Although he thought he may have to wait for hours, Devin was almost immediately called into a room for his hearing. There were three court arbitrators sitting behind a desk. Devin sat next to AHRCO’s lawyer.

James Malley, who was leading the questioning at the hearing, said he’d never had a case where a defendant wouldn’t provide a mailing address. Devin didn’t want his mail sent to his work or to a family member.

“Where are you staying now? In your car or on your street?” Malley said. “I was a caseworker… everybody has someone who they can send their mail to.”

“Sir, I don’t have someone I can trust,” Devin said.

As Malley opened up the proceeding, he explained how the hearing would run, because Devin didn’t have a lawyer: AHRCO would present evidence, and Devin could cross-examine Jennifer Moss, the building manager who was AHRCO’s only witness. Then Devin would get a chance to present his own evidence and AHRCO’s lawyer could cross-examine him.

Over the course of a sometimes chaotic hearing, during which Devin was repeatedly told not to interrupt, the story of how they ended up in court that day became clear.

Devin said his heat stopped working in December 2018. He said he called maintenance four times about it over the next few months. AHRCO’s records state that the problem was fixed each time. Devin said it wasn’t.

Devin decided that he shouldn’t have to pay his rent because the apartment wasn’t totally functional. Every year, he is supposed to provide new evidence of his income to qualify for reduced rent. When he didn’t do so this year, after receiving three warning letters, his rent was raised from $25 per month to more than $800 per month, the market rate.

In late November, Devin McClain was still without a permanent place to live after the Aug. 17 fire on De Ruad Street. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Devin’s rent was lowered to $366 after he showed proof of his income in April. But by then, he was already more than $2,000 behind on his rent. And AHRCO said it had received complaints from neighbors about late-night noise.

AHRCO filed an eviction case, which only halted temporarily because of the Aug. 17 fire. His old apartment is uninhabitable. AHRCO offered him another apartment after the fire, while the case was proceeding. Devin didn’t accept. His old apartment was a 15 minute walk to work, but he said the apartment he was offered would’ve been more than an hour on the bus.

AHRCO’s lawyer methodically presented the company’s case at the Oct. 31 hearing. Devin interrupted the lawyer to question detail after detail. Devin asked questions during cross-examination and then interrupted AHRCO’s building manager as she was answering. “Let her finish,” Malley said. “I’ve already told you several times, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

Devin sometimes raised his voice, slammed his hand on the table and once reached into his pocket to pull out his VA card from his service in the Navy, which proved he has a medical condition. When the arbitrators offered to give him five minutes to organize his pay stubs, he refused. At times, he froze and couldn’t find the words to speak.

But the crux of the case came down to this moment: “What did you do to communicate with anyone in management about no heat and about the recertification that they were asking for?” said Jessica Lynch, one of the arbitrators.

“Ma’am, I’m going to say when you live with no heat, it’s kind of hard to think,” he said. “Yeah, I screwed up not going to the recertification. I screwed that up.”

After the hearing was over, Devin said he’d always wanted to be a lawyer, like Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men.” Devin thought he’d done well, “maybe too well,” he said, though he thought he had a 60% chance of winning the case.

When Malley left the hearing room to hand Devin papers for the case, he told Devin that he had also served in the military and that the food at the VA wasn’t bad. Devin said during the hearing that he didn’t trust the VA.

The papers Malley handed him reduced the amount Devin owed to $1,000. Devin considered it a victory, though even with the reduction, he said he likely can’t afford it.

“They know good and damn well I can’t pay it,” he said.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week one: Geraldine Shields

(Published Aug. 28, 2019)

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.

“Go! Go, go, go, go!” shouted Devin McClain as they dashed inside 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.”

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)
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.
“I’m thankful for the place,” she said. “I’ma stay here.”

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week two: Geraldine Shields

(Published Sept. 4, 2019)

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.

She’s worried the tumultuous aftermath of the fire could hurt her mental health.

“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.

“I had a washer and dryer at my old place,” she said. “I had everything to live a life.”

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?”

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week four: Geraldine Shields

(Published Sept. 18, 2019)

Geraldine Shields woke up at 5 a.m. Wednesday to try to get the Duquesne Light service at her new West Mifflin apartment switched into her name. It was the first time she’s had to pay her own electric bill because it was included in the rent at her previous apartment, where she stayed for the past 15 years.

Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh offers assistance with utilities. Geraldine traveled to its Downtown office on Monday to try to get her Duquesne startup fee waived. Their office was closed. The security guard told her to come back at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

The trip took so much out of her that she waited until Wednesday to try again. She caught the 59 bus at 6:04 a.m., riding about 20 minutes to Homestead. Then she took the 61C for more than an hour to get Downtown. She arrived at the office 30 minutes early. But when she was finally seen, the staff told her she had to run to the Social Security Administration office for a printout of her disability income.

By 10:30 a.m., she was able to get the $117 she owed to Duquesne Light waived and the service transferred to her name. She didn’t know why she had to pay $117. She was told it was calculated based on the amount of electricity used by the previous tenant and her neighbors.

Afterward, Geraldine took the 82 bus to the Hill District to meet a woman from a local nonprofit who gave her fresh sheets, clothes and a surround sound system. She carried the donations with her in a garbage bag onto the 82 to Downtown, where she could catch the 61C and then the 59. She spoke with a PublicSource reporter at 1:15 p.m. while starting her journey on the 82 bus and hoped to be home by 2:30 p.m.

Geraldine said finding transportation has been an inconvenience since the fire. Last week, she tried to ask a man at a bus stop near her apartment if she could catch a ride, but he said he wasn’t going her way. She said she feels lonely because she doesn’t know anybody in her housing complex.

“If I was living on Fifth Avenue, I could say, ‘Hey what’s up, can I get a ride to Giant Eagle?’ because that’s what neighbors and friends do.”

But it’s a tradeoff because she likes the additional privacy of living in her own place. “I’m not in a building with so many people,” she said. “I have grass. I’ve never had grass before.”

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week three: Geraldine Shields

(Published Sept. 11, 2019)

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.

“I got a couple pairs of jeans, a lot of shirts, some sweatsuits, some hoodies, a coat,” she said.

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.

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week 10: Geraldine Shields

(Published Oct. 30, 2019)

Geraldine Shields learned that she’s going to have to move out of her West Mifflin apartment soon.

When she moved to the two-bedroom apartment in August following the fire, she said an AHRCO representative told her they likely wouldn’t have a one-bedroom apartment available for a while. She was put up in a two-bedroom unit, the same size of the apartment she lived in on De Ruad Street. Her son moved out of that apartment years ago, she said, but the company didn’t have anything else for her and let her stay.

But now, she said, AHRCO told her rent would go up to $650 a month for the two-bedroom apartment. She would pay $150 if she moved into a one-bedroom. She can’t afford the increase.

Geraldine said she already put time and money into painting her walls turquoise, but she’s stopped trying to make the apartment nicer since she’s been told she’ll have to move. Now she’s in limbo.

About a month ago, she went to look at furniture that had been donated but said it was in bad shape. She said the mattress she’d been offered “dipped on in” when she sat on it. She threw it out and is sleeping on an air mattress loaned to her by her godfather.

But he recently asked for it back, and she worries a friend who loaned her a TV will ask for that back, too.

Geraldine received some new shirts and thermal underwear from a clothing giveaway by AHRCO, she said, but there weren’t any pants in her size.

“I’m frustrated, overwhelmed,” she said. “Nothing has changed. I’m just living, I’m just here.”

She found a field nearby to run around and burn off some energy.

Geraldine misses her old friends. She ran out of milk a couple of days ago and on the way to a corner store, she said good morning to a woman in the neighborhood. They got to talking, and the woman invited Geraldine over the next day. They spent time hanging out together on the porch, like friends.

“She’s calm,” Geraldine said. “I like calm people”

—By PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison.

Week one: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

(Published Aug. 28, 2019)

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, 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, 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.

Desirea, 27, is uncertain where she and her son, Ny’Air Parks, will have to call home next.

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.

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.
—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week two: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

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.

Ny’Air seems to like the new apartment.

“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.”

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week four: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

(Published Sept. 18, 2019)

Desirea Pate outside of her temporary apartment in West Oakland. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Things were looking up. Desirea Pate and Ny’Air had their sights set on an apartment in the Hill District, and Desirea was interviewing for a job after a period of unemployment.

The job prospect worked out, and she was offered a housekeeping position at a local hospital, but her ability to follow through on it is in peril after plans to move to the apartment fell through.

Desirea said her housing application was denied. Her credit history was flagged because of unpaid student loans. A month after the Aug. 17 fire that displaced Desirea and her 9-year old, they’re unsure where they’ll call home next. Their temporary lease at a West Oakland apartment is up on Oct. 31.

“My landlord told me I had to put the lights and gas bills in my name. That requires a credit check,” she said. “That’s another credit check ding, and I’m only here for another month.”

Duquesne Light is charging $88 to have the service in her name, she said.

Desirea is scheduled to start the new job in November.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she said. “I don’t want to make promises to them that I can’t keep. I don’t know where I’ll be living and, with a job like that, they want to know if you’re dependable and reliable.”

Desirea is planning to appeal the decision to deny her housing application.

“I don’t even care where they put me at,” she said. “I just want stability for me and my child. I don’t want to sound unappreciative because people have helped, but it’s like how long do I have to go through the turmoil before I see the blessing?”

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week six: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

(Published Oct. 3, 2019)

After nearly seven weeks of uncertainty and concerns around securing housing and transportation for her 9-year-old son to get to school, Desirea can breathe a little easier.

Late Wednesday, Desirea learned that she’ll likely be approved to move to a new home. She hopes that means a long-term place to live when her temporary lease at a West Oakland apartment ends Oct. 31. It’ll also mean her son Ny’Air will be able to ride the bus to school.

“There’s a townhouse near Wylie Avenue I’m waiting to hear back from,” Desirea said. “I’m still waiting on what I need from the housing authority.”

Ny’Air used to catch the school bus to Pittsburgh Weil from their old apartment on De Ruad Street. But since moving into the West Oakland apartment four weeks ago, getting to school has been a challenge. The apartment falls within a one-mile radius of the school, which means students are required to find their own way. Desirea has been worried that she won’t be able to get him to school and get to work on time when she starts her new job in November. “He’s not walking from here… I know they want him to get to school [on our own], but the least they could do is help me to get him there safely,” Desirea said

Ny’Air is responsible, but young, she said. He has asthma. She said the route he would have to walk lacks safe and unobstructed sidewalks, and there are blind spots — places where Ny’Air would be out of plain view to motorists in heavily trafficked areas.

Right now, Desirea and Ny’Air rely on public transportation to get to and from school each day.

On Oct. 4, a rally is scheduled at 3 p.m. to protest the management firm AHRCO, the owner of the De Ruad Street apartments. Desirea doesn’t plan to attend. She and NyAir will be commuting home at the time of the rally. “I don’t have time to focus on anything that won’t bring me a break.” Stability is the outcome she’s seeking. “I want my new normal.”

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week 10: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

(Published Oct. 30, 2019)

Days before her lease was set to end this month, Desirea Pate was told she wouldn’t have to move out of her temporary West Oakland apartment. With help from an outreach coordinator from the Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment [FACE] center, a faith-based community outreach group, Desirea was able to negotiate an extension.

“She’s helped ease a lot of how the landlord is enforcing the lease,” Desirea said of the outreach coordinator. “I’m not leaving on a specific date or anything anymore.”

With housing for her and Ny’Air more secure than it’s been since the Aug. 17 fire, Desirea says she feels comfortable pursuing job opportunities more fervently.

Last month, Desirea was offered a full-time position as a facilities manager in the healthcare industry. After intentionally drawing out her decision, Desirea ultimately decided to decline the position.

“I knew that I needed that job,” she said. “I know the worker they would’ve expected me to be wasn’t going to be who I could be with my housing still messed up.”

At the time Desirea didn’t know where she’d be moving, making it impossible to predict where she’d be commuting from and how long it would take to get to and from work.

She said she has two job interviews lined up and weekend plans with Ny’Air to attend a University of Pittsburgh sporting event.

Desirea said she’s still relying on public transportation to get Ny’Air to and from school. Because of his asthma, she submitted to a doctor’s recommendation for Ny’Air to be eligible to ride the school bus, instead of walking. Desirea says she thinks eventually he’ll be riding a school bus again.

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week 15: Desirea Pate and Ny’Air, 9

(Published Dec. 2, 2019)

After being upended by the Aug. 17 fire, Desirea said life is the closest to normal that it’s been in a long time. In November, Desirea accepted a position as a dispatcher at a security firm, re-entering the workforce after months of searching, and her son Ny’Air is finally back on the school bus. Because of Ny’Air’s asthma, his doctor recommended that he ride the bus instead of walking.

“He catches the bus right outside the house,” Desirea said. “There’s a shelter for him to wait inside and a crossing guard to watch over him. He’s happy to be back on the bus with his friends.”

Ny’Air attends the Faith Community Church after-school program near their apartment in West Oakland. There he receives help completing his homework and can engage in play-based activities with other children in the neighborhood.

Desirea is still concerned about the lasting trauma and effect the fire had on her family. “This has been almost four months of our lives, us not having any stability. …I know that stress affected my son, too,” she said.

Desirea said now that she’s back to work, she has to rely on Ny’Air in ways the average 9-year-old isn’t used to.

She said she asks Ny’Air to help out by finishing his homework and completing household chores. “I’m on him about a lot now.”

Before Thanksgiving, she said she was hopeful the holiday would finally be a day of rest and a break from the hustle of their lives in recent weeks. “Sometimes I just want some peace and quiet,” she said.

—By PublicSource community correspondent Jourdan Hicks.

Week one: Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

(Published Aug. 29, 2019)

For much of the last two weeks, Christopher Green hasn’t been able to live with his family.

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.”

All of that has meant prolonged instability.

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.

While he’s been able to work and pay for a room each night, money is tight.

“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.
—By PublicSource reporter J. Dale Shoemaker.

Week three: Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

(Published Sept. 11, 2019)

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.

“I don’t want her to settle for less,” Christopher said.

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.”

—By PublicSource reporter Dale Shoemaker and PublicSource intern Remy Davison.

Week five: Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

(Published Sept. 25, 2019)

Christopher Green and his family have a new place in the Upper Hill District. Previously he’d been staying in a boarding house while Shawna Patrick and children stayed at a hotel. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Christopher Green and his family have a new place in the Upper Hill District. Previously he’d been staying in a boarding house while Shawna Patrick and children stayed at a hotel. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

For Christopher Green and his family, things are finally starting to settle down.

They’ve recently been relocated to an apartment in the Upper Hill District, a living situation that they hope is permanent. In Christopher’s view, the apartment is significantly better than the previous one on De Ruad Street.

The family is furnishing the apartment in part with donations from friends and other community organizations, such as I Dream A World.

Christopher said the move meant his children can easily get to school in their neighborhood. Previously, Pittsburgh Public Schools said that a plan to provide transportation to displaced students had been delayed.

Christopher said it’s a relief knowing that his family has some more stability in their lives.

“The stress has been killing me,” he said. “The not knowing. The rushing… I’ve been burnt out.”

The building is not an AHRCO property, and Christopher said he didn’t know specifics of how the arrangement came about. He said Shawna was previously offered two AHRCO apartments but refused them, citing concerns about quality and safety.

He also said they still have items at the De Ruad Street apartment that they’re unable to access. According to Christopher, the locks were changed days after the fire.

Christopher said he’s happy overall. He’s still working landscaping jobs during the days and has plans to grow his business. He also said he’s looking for other work opportunities. As we stood outside his new building, he swiped past photos of the new apartment: photos of himself, his daughters playing and a beautiful sunset off his new back porch.

—By PublicSource reporter Dale Shoemaker and PublicSource intern Remy Davison.

Week 10: Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

(Published Oct. 30, 2019)

Donations from FOCUS Pittsburgh, Mischelle “Mickey” McMillan of the De Ruad Street Tenants’ Council and community members helped Shawna Patrick furnish her new apartment last week. While the apartment is not completely furnished, the family now has a bed and a dining room table with chairs.

Christopher Green has moved back to the Homewood boarding house where he’d lived before the apartment in the Hill District became available. Christopher lived at De Ruad Street only part-time before the fire.

Now that Shawna and their kids have a permanent place to live, life is returning to a new normal.

Christopher’s ongoing concern is how the children will get to school. He’s frustrated that the school expects a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old to walk over a mile when he and Shawna are often working or otherwise unable to walk with them.

The family is working with a guidance counselor at Weil PreK-5 to resolve the issue. He’s also connected with other parents in the neighborhood who share his frustration. In the meantime, FOCUS has provided Port Authority bus passes for transportation to school.

Before the Aug. 17 fire, Christopher had been traveling outside of Pittsburgh for work. Now that Shawna and the kids are settled in their new apartment, he’s thinking of leaving Pittsburgh again. The coming winter months will mean less landscaping work, and, he said, there’s better money to be made elsewhere.

“I need to do more for my business and my future,” he said.

—By PublicSource intern Remy Davison.

Week eight: Christopher Green, Shawna Patrick and children

(Published Oct. 17, 2019)

Despite finding a new apartment, Christopher Green and his family are still feeling the after-effects of the De Ruad Street fire. Money is tight and, even though they live close to the kids’ school, transportation remains an issue.

When he was at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in the days following the August fire, he said a few charitable organizations and local businesses promised him and his family furniture once they found a place to live. Now that they have a new apartment, Christopher said they’d had a difficult time getting in touch with some of them. He said FOCUS Pittsburgh has helped out, and they’ve been relying on family and friends to fill the remaining gaps.

“We’re doing our part,” he said. “We’re doing the right thing.”

There are also ongoing issues with school transportation for his kids, a kindergartener and a third grader. Christopher said the school briefly provided bus passes, but the family now lives about a mile from the school, and under school policy, they’re required to provide their own transportation.

Christopher said he doesn’t feel comfortable having his two young kids walk alone. The family has been in touch with the school and hopes they can come to an agreement on transportation.

Right now, Christopher said he’s trying to save money for the holiday. The seasonal change to fall usually leads to fewer landscaping jobs, he said, but he hopes business will pick up again once the leaves start dropping.

“I just gotta deal with it.”

—By PublicSource intern Remy Davison.

Week one: Nicole Nelson and Pharaoh, 2

(Published Aug. 28, 2019)

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, 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.
—By PublicSource intern Daniel Walsh.

Week three: Nicole Nelson and Pharaoh, 2

(Published Sept. 11, 2019)

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.

Nicole ended the conversation by saying, “Nothing will ever be normal.”

Read our previous entry on Nicole and Pharoah.

—By PublicSource intern Daniel Walsh.

Oliver Morrison can be reached at Jourdan Hicks can be reached at Grace McGinniss can be reached at

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!

Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.