Life interrupted: Kitchen fire throws Richmond family into upheaval, uncertainty

Kitchen fire throws Richmond family into upheaval, uncertainty

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 9/13/2019, 6 a.m.
It just took a small fire on the stove on Aug. 23 to upend the lives of sisters Celieto L. ...
Janice F. Lewis, left, and her sister, Celieto L. Lewis, stand beside their vehicle, which now doubles as their bedroom. The sisters have been homeless since Aug. 23, when the house they were renting was condemned after a kitchen fire. Photo by Regina H. Boone

It just took a small fire on the stove on Aug. 23 to upend the lives of sisters Celieto L. and Janice F. Lewis.

Both in their 60s, they have few resources and are now homeless after their rented home in South Side was condemned after the fire.

Also caring for two grandchildren, a great-grandchild and a cat, their sleeping quarters is their vehicle, a 2002 Chrysler Town and Country SUV they cannot afford to replace.

Their tale of woe, unfortunately, is not unusual in a city where one in four people live in poverty and another 25 percent have household incomes below the city’s median of about $43,000 a year.

One of the biggest barriers to stability within families and in employment involves an unexpected event that creates unforeseen bills that overwhelm a household’s resources. It just takes the breakdown of a car, an injury, the illness of a child, a death in the family or another situation, according to workers for social services agencies and nonprofits who hear such stories every day from people desperate for assistance.

Neither the government nor nonprofits such as the Community Foundation, the United Way or area faith groups have created a fund to provide bailout money for people who have run through their money and do not have a backup plan to deal with emergencies.

Food pantries and clothes closets can assist with some of the problems families face, but sometimes people just need cash to resolve their difficulties.

The Lewises’ housing problem is compounded by other challenges, including the pregnancy of a granddaughter, who is about to give birth. The family’s landlord and property owner has not offered assistance and has not started repairs to the home in the 1400 block of Flynn Road, leaving the family to hunt for another place to live.

The fire has left the Lewis sisters hunting for another three-bedroom house for themselves and those they care for. They thought they had one, but on Tuesday that prospect fell through. So they continue to sleep in their vehicle as they keep searching for another place to live.

“Our biggest problem has been coming up with a security deposit. That’s on top of the rent. We’ve gone to Social Services, but they just referred us to other places. It’s just a run-around.”

For now, they have solved the problem of the security deposit. They have set aside money from their government checks from September to pay the deposit if they find another place.

Their hope is to start paying rent of around $900 a month, about half their monthly income, if they can move in October or later.

They admit that their situation would not be so bad if they had purchased a rental insurance policy to protect their possessions from fire loss and to pay for temporary housing if their place became uninhabitable. They are living with that decision.

Many who face tough challenges are like the Lewis sisters, who have always worked until they could not but never saved much.

Celieto Lewis, 63, worked in cold storage operations for ice-making firms and food wholesalers until she became disabled in 1991 and became reliant on a government disability check of about $900 a month.

Janice Lewis, 65, spent most of her career as a food service worker at area grocery stores, including the now defunct Ukrop’s supermarket operation where she trained other deli workers to make pot pies, chicken and dumplings and chicken. Her main income is a check for about $970 a month from Social Security. Before this upheaval from the fire, she also added to the household income by working part time at a fast-food restaurant.

The sisters look after the two grown, unemployed grandchildren, Damion Lewis, 21, who is autistic and has a tough time finding work, and Tania Cooper, 23, who is pregnant.

Both are children of Janice Lewis’ late son, who was killed in 2002. Janice Lewis, along with her sister, have been caring for the grandchildren since they were toddlers. The household also includes Ms. Cooper’s 4-year-old daughter, Sinai.

Their life took a turn when Celieto Lewis went to make French fries around 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, and left a heating pan of grease on the new stove she and her sister had purchased four weeks earlier.

“I saw light in the kitchen,” she said, and found the fire. She burned her hand pulling the flaming pan off the stove. The flames already had destroyed the range hood and had begun creeping up the wall.

They called 911, then mostly extinguished the flames by the time the fire trucks arrived.

However, a city building inspector, who was called in by the Fire Department, condemned the house after finding the electrical breakers had not functioned, signaling a wiring problem that needed correction.

“By 9 p.m., we had to be out,” Celieto Lewis said. “That was shocking.”

The Lewis sisters in front of the condemned house on Flynn Road in South Side that they no longer are allowed to live in.

The Lewis sisters in front of the condemned house on Flynn Road in South Side that they no longer are allowed to live in.

The home’s owner, Franklin Carroll, has not responded to Free Press requests for comment.

Celieto Lewis said Mr. Carroll has called her only once since the fire. “He talked about getting a few things done like a new back door. So far, nothing has changed on the house.”

The area Red Cross responded to the fire and provided the Lewises with $455 on an electronic card based on the five people in the household so they could afford to stay at an area motel for a few days.

“But that really was the only money we had. We needed to use that for other things like gas for the car and food,” said Janice Lewis. After the fire, they could not cook or preserve the food stocked in the freezer. Their money remained short until their next disability and Social Security checks arrived after Labor Day, more than a week later.

They have reached out to a variety of groups and received support from their City Council representative, Dr. Michael J. Jones, who was able to arrange for a nearby Motel 6 to put up the family for four days during the Labor Day holiday without charge.

But that respite has come and gone. Celieto Lewis said they rejected one option they were offered — staying in shelters. “We would have had to split up,” she said, “and we didn’t want to do that. No one could take us as a group.”

Even when they find a place, they will still face challenges, including surviving until they can move in. They also must deal with the cost of moving their furniture and other possessions to the new address.

“It’s just one thing after another,” said Celieto Lewis. “Sometimes you think about just giving up. But you can’t. Others are depending on you. You just have to keep going and hope for the best.”