When Nancy Cox-Gilmore faced eviction, she made phone calls, talked with whoever would listen, and prayed. And when those prayers were answered, she shared her good fortune widely — until, over just a few months this year, her efforts nearly cost her everything.
As snow fell gently on McKeesport this month, Nancy stood outside of her faintly leaning house on Huey Street, recalling the desperate winter of 1999. During the first week of that year, a district judge approved her eviction from a rental house on Jersey Street. As she awaited her March 2 appeal hearing, she had nowhere to take her children and foster kids.
She later recounted a key conversation with a nun at The Intersection, a McKeesport social services provider run by the Sisters of Mercy. “I was telling her how this [landlord] didn’t want us in the house any longer. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “She said one door would close, another one would open.”
And one did.
Nuns talk. Somewhere in the nun network, word of Nancy’s plight met news of one Margaret Qualters, who was being cared for by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, in Ross. Qualters would not be returning to the house she owned in McKeesport and wanted to give it away to a needy family.
On Feb. 4, 1999, with the nuns’ help, the title transferred from Qualters directly to Nancy.
"And that's how we got this," said Nancy. Secure in that gift house, Nancy raised her three kids, adopted six more and fostered scores of boys and girls — she estimates around 100 — for periods of days or months.
“She has taken in children that probably no one else would've taken in,” said Karen Supansic, manager of The Intersection. “And so in that regard, her work has been in some ways miraculous for the overall community.”
Now, though, there’s a jagged crack in the brick facade of the Huey Street house. As a cruel result of Nancy’s attempts to have the house repaired, it was condemned in August. That sent Nancy, along with five children (including two foster kids) ages 2 through 16, on a two-month odyssey of hotel rooms and uncertainty that did not end until she was broke and desperate. With help, she was able to return to the house around Halloween.
But she approaches 2021 with a long to-do list and a warning from McKeesport's solicitor that the house's issues "need addressed within the next year to ensure the structure remains safe."
As Christmas approached, Nancy didn’t know how she was going to get the work done. She’d spent her savings on hotel rooms. An organization that had pledged to help her with repairs instead dissolved. There are other organizations that help to rehabilitate homes in the Mon Valley, but the need is great and the waiting lists are long.
The kids, Nancy said, are “worried about what will happen if we can’t get the money together.” She tries not to dwell on the potential effects on their lives if she can’t fix the house. She has to find a way.
“I put it in my mind that it’s going to happen,” she said, “and I put it in their minds that it’s going to happen.”
‘One after the other’
Nancy, 58, believes she was born to mother. In an interview conducted via Zoom from the "Mom cave" in her five-bedroom house, she recounted a scene from her childhood in Mount Pleasant. A soldier recently back from Vietnam, and the soldier’s young wife, approached her and handed her their baby to hold. Something clicked.
“As I grew older I always knew that I wanted a bunch of children,” she said. “I had in my mind that I wanted six sons.”
A youthful marriage ended in divorce but not before she had three biological children. When a child was abandoned in the apartment building she lived in, she was shocked, but also inspired. She decided to help children from troubled families, and in 1990 started taking in foster kids.
“And then it just went on,” she said. “It was like one after the other,” from agencies working for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The county’s program pays caregivers modest stipends to take in kids removed from their long-term homes.
Fostering became Nancy’s full-time job. “There’s such a big need, you know what I’m saying, for homes,” she said.
There were the short-termers, “like maybe there was a drug bust and everybody had to get out of the house, so they brought them to my house.” Or worse. “Their home was on fire, and the parents passed away, so we just had to take them for a couple days until the family got situated.” Kids victimized by sexual assault tended to stay longer.
Then there were the keepers. Nancy went through a “baby phase,” in which agencies “brought me like two babies, then another one,” then more. She ended up adopting six.
“Over the years she has done incredible work with taking in foster children, seeing them through to young adulthood,” said Supansic. “She's always been a very competent person, and she has taken care of the children, and the children have been very mannerly, very loving of her, and she of them."
A free two-week hotel stay
The haven on Huey Street became an unofficial “safe house,” said Nancy, where kids found refuge from trouble. But it’s around 100 years old.
A few years ago, Nancy set out to get some work done, calling on a local nonprofit called McKeesport Housing Corporation. Founded in 1985, it described its mission in filings with the IRS: "To assist poor and/or distressed families in obtaining safe and sanitary housing."
Nancy said McKeesport Housing Executive Director James Haughey visited the house. An Oct. 10, 2018 scope of work, put together by the nonprofit, estimated the extensive list of repairs at $24,610.
McKeesport Housing’s grant rules allowed them to spend as much as $25,000 per house, according to Nancy. It became clear, during 2019, that the work needed on the Huey Street house would actually cost more than that. Nancy said it was Haughey’s idea to bring in the Allegheny Lead Safe Homes Program, run by the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County. The theory: lead remediation would take care of the window replacement, reducing the work McKeesport Housing would have to shoulder.
Nancy said it was difficult to get McKeesport Housing and the lead program to coordinate their efforts. But by early August, contractors assigned by the lead program were ready to start.
All she and the five kids had to do was move into the Courtyard by Marriott at The Waterfront for around two weeks, at the lead program’s expense. At least, that was the plan.
Cheap hotels and Speedway pizza
On Aug. 10, Nancy and the five kids moved into a two-room suite in the West Homestead hotel. It wasn’t much of a vacation. Nancy was recovering from thyroid surgery, and the pandemic further constrained the family.
“There’s no breakfast [buffet], there’s no pool, you can’t go outside, you can’t run around,” Nancy recounted. To her annoyance, some hotel guests weren’t wearing masks.
A week into the lead remediation effort, Nancy got word that one of the workers was injured on her fire escape. That prompted an inspection by the City of McKeesport. Suddenly, her home was condemned.
It’s not unprecedented for a rehab effort to become a condemnation, said Larry Swanson, executive director of ACTION-Housing Inc., which offers affordable housing services throughout the region.
“That happens from time to time,” Swanson said. “What happens is, when you investigate the case, you find out that there are structural issues that you don’t have the money to fix.”
Swanson said the decision to condemn “depends on the level of public code that is applied to that property.” Typically, he said, local code officers are more lenient regarding owner-occupied homes than rented properties.
In Nancy’s case, the lead remediation workers were allowed to finish their work. But McKeesport Housing, which had agreed to take on the rest of the project, had since ceased operations. Its last IRS filings were submitted in 2018. Haughey confirmed that the organization was defunct but declined to be interviewed.
Nancy and her family were not permitted to reenter the house, even to get food or clothes, she said. The county lead program continued to pay her hotel bill into September. But after that, she and the kids were on their own.
While pleading with the city to reconsider its condemnation, Nancy moved into an extended stay hotel, which “was horrible.” So she and the five kids took a single room in a Comfort Inn in West Mifflin. Some of the kids attended classes remotely, while others traveled daily to in-person school, depending on the districts to which they were assigned.
With money running low and her van suffering transmission problems, Nancy struggled to get basic supplies. She relied on food brought by her daughter Brandi Cox, 35, of Dravosburg, or inexpensive items bought nearby. “So yeah,” Nancy recounted, “we’re eating Speedway pizzas and crammed up in a hotel.”
Though Nancy said she called, texted and tried to visit McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, the city did not back off on the condemnation. Cherepko did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
The foster kids “were petrified, because they were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have to leave,’” and go back to the homes from which they’d been removed, Nancy said. Things came to a head in late October.
“I said to the kids, I was like, ‘Listen, the hotel slipped a paper under the door and said that yinz have to be gone by 11.’ I said, ‘Listen, we have no more money. There’s nothing left. We have to go back to the house,’” Nancy said.
“I told the kids, ‘We might have to sleep upstairs with the lights off so they don’t know we’re there.’ I was a nervous wreck worried that the police or somebody was going to knock on the door and tell us that we had to get out.”
A stinky homecoming
Nancy had, meanwhile, turned to the same strategies that saved her in 1999: praying and networking.
In early October, she reached Marcy Perrin, a fellow member of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Duquesne. Perrin is the founder and executive director of a small, six-year-old nonprofit organization called America's Single Mother.
“When I heard the story, I was completely torn apart by it,” said Perrin. “That house is a big, big house, but it’s a safe house, and everybody comes there when they need to feel safe.”
Perrin works in real estate and was able to line up a structural engineer willing to look at Nancy’s house, for a reduced fee of $600.
Nancy said she had the choice of paying that fee or covering one last week at Comfort Inn. She took a chance with the structural engineer.
Taylor Structural Engineers reported on Oct. 26 that the 100-year-old house had "no visible evidence of any structural distress or instability," despite some settling and leaning. It wasn’t immediately unsafe, but would need significant work, soon.
“The day the structural engineer finally sent us the report saying that the house was safe was the day that she ran out of money and didn’t know where her next meal was coming from,” said Brandi.
Perrin immediately shared the report with Cherepko, noting in an email: "Nancy will move into her house tomorrow morning. Please provide documentation that the city has relinquished the property back to Nancy Gilmore and that the property is no longer 'condemned.'"
The next day, the city relented, in a letter from J. Jason Elash, its solicitor.
It was a stinky homecoming. Over 11 weeks, two freezers and two refrigerators full of food had rotted.
“The house was full of flies,” said Nancy. “My one son came in with a HAZMAT suit on.”
They had to throw out some items and professionally clean others. “The smell was like in the walls, and the carpet,” said Nancy. Faced with mice that crept in during their absence, they adopted a cat, despite Nancy’s allergies.
“It’s a joy that we have our home and everyone’s in good health,” said Brandi, “but there’s also a big elephant in the room, still.”
Nancy believes that the letter from Elash gives her until October to address the house’s structural problems.
“That time will fly, and this is already winter, and people don’t do that kind of work in the winter,” she said. Even if they did, she has no money, and no promised grant, now that McKeesport Housing is defunct.
Swanson said ACTION-Housing is working with fellow nonprofit Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to fill some of the gap created by McKeesport Housing Corp.'s demise. They've cleaned up a few homes, rehabbed others and built a handful of new ones, he said.
COVID-19 has slowed the effort, and it will require sustained attention and funding to make a dent in the backlog of aging housing in McKeesport. "You need to get to around 50, 60 homes a year, and you need to sustain it for 10 years, and then you’ll make an impact," Swanson said.
Rehabbing owner-occupied homes is particularly tricky, because the funding provider often has to mediate disputes between the homeowner and the contractors. "It's hard business," he said.
Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh directors did not respond to requests for an interview.
Nancy said she’s been in touch with Rebuilding Together, Take Action Mon Valley and a slew of other social service agencies. America’s Single Mother is trying to raise a grant to help. A family member set up a GoFundMe page in November, but it had attracted just $25 by late December.
Nancy has gotten, so far, one concrete pledge of help: Nazareth Housing Services, an arm of the same sisterhood that helped put her in the home, has pledged to send a contractor over to patch the roof and take a look at the house’s other needs.
Brandi said that in some ways, her family was "fortunate," compared to others, in 2020.
"We didn’t lose anybody in our immediate family this year," she noted. But a home like theirs, she said, is "something you don’t want to lose, as well. So we were, like, losing our home, watching our home being in the hospital being on life support, not knowing if it’s going to make it."
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.
Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.