Credit: Andrew Giambrone

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Forty-one-year-old mother of five Kesha Scrivner signs every email with a triumphant mix of The Clark Sisters and Destiny’s Child: “Blessed & Highly Favored, I’m A Survivor.” Her outgoing texts are just as peppy, each ending with “Blessed, I’m A Survivor, Freak Cancer,” except that they’re punctuated not by commas but by emojis: two flexed biceps.

Diagnosed in May 2014 with stage-three breast cancer, Scrivner has seen an onerous share of hospital rooms and gurneys. She’s had three procedures since November, the most recent on Aug. 15—a follow-up to breast reconstruction.

Just five days earlier, though, the D.C. government worker had survived another setback. Around 5 p.m. that Wednesday, a fire erupted in the back ground-floor unit of her three-story walk-up building in Anacostia, a few blocks east of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. While Scrivner wasn’t home at the time, she received frantic calls from her brother, younger cousin, and 21-year-old daughter, who were. The family’s unit (apartment 202) is upstairs and across the hall from the one where flames were burning.

Firefighters ultimately contained the blaze that evening, and no one in the six-unit, gray-brick building was injured. Still, it wreaked havoc in the downstairs unit where it started and rendered the one directly above—that of 26-year-old Gabbie Williams, who has two sons and is now four months pregnant—uninhabitable. With some money from the Red Cross, Scrivner’s and Williams’ families temporarily moved to a Marriott Hotel in Largo, where they remained until that weekend. (A fire department spokesman says the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined.)

This was the prologue to the daunting trials that have occupied the two mothers for the past month. Displaced, their families represent the face of financial and circumstantial misfortune, compounded by the distress and hardship of pre-existing medical conditions.

“I don’t have energy. I hurt every day,” says Scrivner, who is staying with her sister and mother in Upper Marlboro, along with her elder daughter, 15-year-old son, and 4-year-old daughter. “I cried the first three weeks, but I had to get it together because I didn’t want to end up back in the hospital.”

Although housing inspectors have not declared Scrivner’s unit unlivable, smoke damaged practically all the family’s furniture and clothes. It even ruined an expensive machine she used to treat lymphedema, a skin condition that commonly results after breast cancer surgery and swells a person’s arms or legs. “Everything is still at that apartment,” Scrivner says. “I’m starting all over.”

Black marks remain in and around the air ducts of Scrivner’s unit, and her carpet is discolored. Outside, half of the building’s rear facade is covered by a charcoal film, as are its side walls atop boarded-up windows. The smell of burnt chemicals lingers in the driveway, the main stairwell linking the units, and the apartments themselves. What must have been much stronger odors failed to deter looters the week after the fire broke out.

James, an elderly black man who asked to be identified only by his first name and has lived on the building’s third floor since before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, says he’s had to clean his apartment’s walls at least three times since the blaze. He’s also experiencing difficulty speaking at length because of the smoke residue, despite leaving the windows open and fanning out his bedroom. James says he stayed in the building because it’s been his home for so long. His living room walls, blanketed with photos of his children—one deceased—attests to that fact.

When their Red Cross assistance ran out, Scrivner’s and Williams’ families relocated with the help of D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate to the Holiday Inn Express on Bladensburg Road, near New York Avenue NE. They lived there for two weeks with what few necessities they were able to salvage from their apartments. Williams’ unit resembles the site of a raid, detritus in each room: toys strewn every which way, smashed window panes on a mattress, clothes all over the floor. 

Then, they had to leave again. Both mothers went to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center on Rhode Island Avenue NE, where struggling families can access a range of services the District provides. Scrivner says she was offered a shelter placement but couldn’t accept it because her compromised immune system makes it risky for her to spend too much time in shared bathrooms or common areas. A one-bedroom unit wasn’t an ideal fit either.

“I’m not trying to be picky or anything, but realistically how are me and three kids going to go there?” she says. “I’m glad I have my sister to come to, because if not, we’d be sleeping in the car.” But she wants her own home and sense of independence back.

Williams and her children—one is 9, the other will be 2 in October—eventually were furnished a room at the Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW, in Brightwood, where many homeless families are placed. She recently received a new housing voucher and, like Scrivner (who paid market rate for her apartment), has been looking for a new place. Sometimes, she’s driven around neighborhoods with a friend. Her short-term lodgings, where she’s been since Aug. 29, leave much to be desired, the pregnant mom says, above all comfort. “We’re all sleeping on one bed.”

Both kids have noticed the change of circumstances. The oldest, who attends a public school in Ward 8 and has major health issues, has missed several days this year, in part because the trip takes upwards of an hour each way. Several of his friends have asked why he’s been absent so much lately, Williams says. The mother recounts that the youngest, whom she took to the apartment a couple of weeks ago to check the mail, wanted to go inside to lay in his bed. 

“I told him he couldn’t,” she says. “I just try to make it as easy as possible. It’s been stressful.”

The displacement has put a strain on Williams’ pregnancy, which her medical caregivers say has suffered complications. “Every day is something different,” she notes.

It’s unclear when the burned-out building will see extensive repairs, no matter how unlikely Williams and Scrivner are to move back, and notwithstanding a Sept. 13 inspection report by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that found four code violations associated with the fire in Scrivner’s unit. (Among them: “smoke-contaminated ducts” and a “smoke-contaminated carpet.”) A senior representative for Urban City Management, which supervises the property and more than 100 others in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, says its insurance company has not greenlighted the necessary refurbishments, since it requires an itemized repair list or estimate of total damages.

The representative adds that the building’s owner wanted to rehabilitate it the day after the blaze, but the insurer stopped any work. Though a fire inspection has been conducted and adjusters are in the process of obtaining estimates, “We are at their mercy right now and very eager to begin the restoration process,” he says. 

In the rep’s telling, Urban encouraged all the tenants to relocate, connecting them to the Red Cross and city agencies. The company offered Scrivner what he describes as exceptional concessions given her condition, such as waiving back rent (the total of which Scrivner disputes), money for the first month of rent plus a security deposit at a new apartment, and referrals to a few management companies that could aid in her search. Scrivner, who’s lived in three buildings supervised by Urban since 2011 and has been in court with the company, replies that the help wasn’t sufficient—she felt hung out to dry.

“This is my issue: You cannot leave families stuck,” Scrivner says. “They don’t have to live there, they probably have their nice houses wherever. Don’t not care about us because we’re in the hood.”

The fire was the company’s worst yet, the rep adds, figuring damages in the tens of thousands of dollars. The building’s subsidized tenants were asked to request emergency relocation vouchers to find alternative housing as soon as possible, he says. Still, Williams has the impression that Urban doesn’t want her as a tenant anymore because she’s the kind to put up a fight when push comes to shove. “Which is fine with me.”

More than a month after she rushed home to find her building aflame, Scrivner says she feels “a whole lot better about things,” knowing her displacement isn’t permanent. She’s survived cancer, after all. “My big focus right now is trying to find another place for me and my children, which is very hard in D.C. because you basically have to have perfect credit to get anything anywhere,” she says, confessing that she doesn’t. “And now the prices of these apartments are ridiculous.”

“It’s on me to find something. I don’t want to stay at my sister’s forever—or be on the streets.”

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