On the edge in Baltimore

May 27, 2007

The rent on the small brick rowhouse on Cecil Avenue was $60 a month, and Deneen Thomas couldn't afford it. Nonetheless, she took in family members and friends who had nowhere else to go - because how could she turn them away? She was a single mother working a part-time job at night, struggling on her own, helping others who couldn't make it on their own. And but for the fire that ripped through the rowhouse last week, killing five of Ms. Thomas' family members and an unrelated child, the constellation of her life would have remained unknown outside their small East Baltimore universe.

Indeed, in Baltimore, where the number of people living in poverty is nearly twice the national average, the circumstances of Deneen Thomas' life aren't that unusual - they are playing out across the city in thousands of homes:

Multigenerational families depending on each other for housing and food. Women caring for children of absent or imprisoned parents. Runaway foster kids moving in with a friend. Too many people in too small a house.

And whether it's trying to find a decent, affordable place to live or getting to a doctor or paying the bills, one difficulty can lead to another. An eviction, a violent outburst, a fatal fire could be the outcome.

Baltimore, like many big cities, has had its share of such fires, linked to a toppled candle or a faulty space heater because a family couldn't pay for heat or electricity. That wasn't the situation at 1903 Cecil Ave.; the fire there was likely accidentally set. But it was no accident that so many people - 13 in all - lived in that house.

They were there out of necessity.

Ms. Thomas, along with her two sons, was homeless when she asked the owner of the then-vacant house to let her live there. Her 16-year-old son who died in the blaze suffered from muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair. Her 20-year-old daughter and two granddaughters lived there. A runaway from foster care, a friend of Ms. Thomas' son Davonte, often stayed there - and he died there. Ms. Thomas was caring for her 3-year-old grandson; he, too, died.

The Cecil Avenue house was home to a constellation of relationships that reflect the social realities of the battle to survive in poverty in an American city today. It's a battle far too many lose.

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