Brenda Scott awoke early Sunday morning to the sound of blaring smoke alarms.
She rushed to her 18-year-old disabled son’s room, and carried him downstairs to the street as thick smoke filled her kitchen in the 1500 block of Ramsay Street in Southwest Baltimore’s New Southwest/Mount Clare neighborhood.
Scott said she pounded on her neighbors’ doors and called 911 to report the “sky high” blaze that spread from a vacant rowhouse to her house and three other vacant buildings on the block.
The Baltimore Fire Department said Sunday morning that one family had been displaced by the five-house fire that occurred just before 3:30 a.m. and that they were being helped by the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods. The fire department’s protocol is to contact neighborhood services, which involves the American Red Cross.
Standing in the rain Sunday afternoon outside her torched house, Scott said she hasn’t been helped by the Red Cross or the city’s neighborhood services. Her husband, who relies on oxygen, and her son, who uses a wheelchair, huddled inside the family’s truck with their cat as Scott made frantic calls to find assistance.
“We have nothing. No clothes. No shoes,” Scott said. “I’m getting no help. I don’t understand it.”
She said a representative from Red Cross told her that they had a record of her making calls for assistance and that her plea was suspected to be fraudulent. Scott, who had rented the house for four years, said the representative told her that her landlord needed to provide the deed to the house and the leasing agreement.
The representative told Scott in a live conversation heard by a Baltimore Sun photographer that “the Red Cross could not directly provide assistance at this time” and that “if we were to give out money to people at random,” then there wouldn’t be money left for the people who need it.
The American Red Cross said Sunday that the fire was reported and that a representative had been in contact with the displaced family. The representative, who identified himself as a disaster program manager, did not respond to The Sun’s requests for comment.
“I told him my ID, all of my stuff, is inside the house,” Scott said.
Ashley Henyan, commutations director for American Red Cross, National Capital & Greater Chesapeake Region, said the nonprofit’s protocol is to ask displaced people to provide a photo ID to confirm their identity and to show proof of residency with a mortgage statement, lease agreement or utility bill. Two documents proving residency are required when a photo ID can’t be produced.
The Red Cross does not track fraudulent reports or whether they’ve doled out money that is later found to be inappropriate. “As part of our commitment to the American public, as excellent stewards of donor dollars, it is important steps are taken to help ensure Red Cross disaster assistance is always going to help individuals and families that need it the most,” Henyan said.
The blaze in a three-story vacant rowhouse spread as firefighters sprayed water at it from the outside, causing the department to upgrade the call to a second alarm, which brought more personnel and equipment. The fire was knocked down around 5 a.m. and placed under control around 6:30 a.m.
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In the aftermath, the frames of the vacant houses sat with gutted interiors and exposed roofs. The floors of one three-story rowhouse had collapsed. Charred debris littered the sidewalk.
Sunday’s blaze confirmed one of Scott’s worst fears. She said she routinely chases people away who try to squat inside the abandoned houses, concerned that they could start a fire. The cause of Sunday’s fire is under investigation, said Blair Adams, a fire department spokesperson.
In Baltimore, data compiled by The Baltimore Sun shows fires in vacant properties pose an outsize risk in some of the poorest neighborhoods. Among city neighborhoods, New Southwest/Mount Clare experienced the third-highest number of vacant fires over a five-year period The Sun studied. In January, three Baltimore firefighters died when they entered a burning vacant rowhouse in New Southwest/Mount Clare that collapsed.
As gray skies darkened Sunday afternoon, Scott and her family prepared to spend the night sleeping in their truck parked outside the rowhouse. Without a place to go, the family kept watch over their property to ward off anyone who might enter and take the few belongings that are salvageable.
“I can’t take much more,” Scott said.
Thirty-six hours later, Scott still hasn’t slept. She said Monday that the Red Cross representative finally arrived around 2:30 p.m. with an apology and a $500 gift card for shelter, food and clothing after she searched her burnt house for a soggy copy of a Baltimore Gas and Electric bill that proved her residency. She still hasn’t heard from the city’s neighborhood services.
A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott did not respond to questions about the agency’s response.