Thomasine Evans and her boyfriend had been homeless until a few months ago, when they finally settled into an apartment in West Baltimore.
Yesterday, that modest apartment they found with the help of a city nonprofit group was set ablaze, killing two people - one of them Evans - in what police said was an apparent arson.
The fire followed what some neighbors said was a loud argument among several people on the second floor, where the couple lived.
Men, women and children were forced to evacuate in the chilly pre-dawn hours as smoke and flames poured out of the windows of the four-story building in the 2100 block of Garrison Blvd.
Firefighters rescued three children and carried them down a ladder to safety.
As of last night, authorities had not confirmed the identity of a man who died in the blaze, but a Fire Department spokesman identified Evans as the other victim. Fire and police officials would not comment on the investigation.
"She was a nice and generous person," said Tarsha McClain, 24, a neighbor of Evans'. "She'd give the shirt off her back ... I still owe her $5."
Neighbors and social workers said Evans, 41, had four children who did not live with her, and a fifth child who died in North Carolina a couple of years ago. They described her boyfriend as a gregarious, enthusiastic man.
Some residents said they heard loud voices and arguing among several people after midnight coming from the second floor where the couple lived.
Several apartments in the Windsor Court building were damaged by smoke and fire. More than two dozen people were displaced from their apartments, which are part of a sprawling, 49-unit building, fire officials and relief workers said.
Another part of the complex caught fire more than two years ago, killing at least one man and displacing 60 people. About 15 apartments in that part of the building remain vacant and uninhabitable, city housing officials said.
According to state property records, a private company called Blue Ocean III LLC., with a Brooklyn, N.Y., mailing address, bought the building for $1 million in July. Company officials could not be reached for comment.
Kevin Lindamood, a vice president for Health Care for the Homeless, said the agency helped Evans and her boyfriend find their apartment. He said the couple had been doing "very well."
"We work very hard to try to find people and get them off the streets, " Lindamood said. "This is a tragic loss of life."
Evans used to hang around City Hall Plaza several years ago, waiting for afternoon meals that would be served by social services advocates each day. She told a Sun reporter in 1998 that she was originally from North Carolina.
"There aren't any homeless people in this city who should be hungry," Evans said at the time, explaining that she slept in a friend's garage as part of a way of life that she chose. "Some of these people choose to be here."
Lindamood said that the non-profit group had helped other homeless people move into the same apartment building.
One woman, Deidre Hannah, said she was awakened by a smoke detector and thick, black smoke. She has three children home.
She went to her apartment door, felt it, and found it hot. She ran across her apartment, opened a balcony door and saw firefighters climbing up a ladder to her floor.
"They took my kids down the ladder," Hannah said. "I was terrified."
Hannah said that a firefighter led her down the stairs and to safety. She and her family planned to spend a few days at an area hotel.
Other residents said they were alerted to the fire by smoke and shouts.
"I woke everybody up," said Regina Arrington, 37, who lives in the building. She said she looked out her window as she was trying to fall asleep and saw flames flickering and reflecting off another window. "I got the people out of my apartment. ... I kicked out windows."
Red Cross workers and the residents congregated in the basement of a nearby church, huddling for warmth and trying to assess their needs. About 14 families - a total of 27 people - were affected, the American Red Cross's Central Maryland Chapter said.
Kevin Burr, an American Red Cross emergency services director, said the agency was working with the building's owner to see if the families could be placed in other vacant apartments.
David Tillman, a Baltimore housing department spokesman, said that inspectors were trying to determine whether any of the apartments would have to be condemned until repairs could be made.
He said the city was working with the Red Cross and the building's owner to ensure that the displaced had places to stay.