Salt Lake City apartment fire displaces tenants who only recently found homes after living on the street

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Embassy Apartments tenant Debi Eagle looks at the balcony of her home, May 14, 2020. Eagle was told on Thursday that she and others could not enter their apartments due to the presence of asbestos. An early morning fire ripped through the building, injuring three firefighters and displacing residents on Tuesday.

Debi Raynor woke Tuesday to the sound of people screaming and the taste of smoke on her lips. The Salt Lake City apartment complex that had become her safe haven after living on the streets had gone up in flames.

By nightfall, she found herself homeless once again, setting up a child-sized tent on a patch of grass near Liberty Park, where she slept fitfully on top of a couch cushion covered with a tablecloth.

“I don’t even know what to do, where to go,” she said Thursday, tears streaming down her face as she sat outside the singed apartment building at 130 S. 300 East and waited to get inside to gather the rest of her belongings. “I cannot do the cycle again.”

Raynor, 51, is one of several formerly homeless tenants who lived at the Embassy Apartments now wondering what they’ll do next.

Ron and Katherine Barrett, who moved from their tent into the complex last February, are using the $350 each tenant received from the American Red Cross to stay in a micro motel near the Salt Lake City International Airport for now. But at $85 a night, that money will be gone soon — and they’re not sure what they’ll do then.

“I’ve been on the street before, so I should be comforted by that, that I’ll be OK if I have to,” Katherine said in an interview outside the complex Thursday. “But it scares the hell out of me now because I’ve spent a year in a bed, and I really don’t want to be back on the street. And it’s scarier now because the gangs are a little bit meaner than the other ones were.”

Going back on the streets also means becoming more vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has ripped its way through Salt Lake City’s homeless community in recent weeks. As of Monday, there were 144 diagnosed cases at the South Salt Lake men’s shelter, 10 at the Midvale family shelter, four at the coed Gail Miller Resource Center and eight in the unsheltered community.

A spokeswoman in the Salt Lake County mayor’s office said Friday that there were 38 active positive cases within the homeless community and 134 recovered cases.

Neither Raynor nor the Barretts are too concerned about catching the coronavirus, and the Barretts said they hoped their time on the streets had improved their immune systems.

But the couple’s preexisting medical conditions — Ron’s cancer and Katherine’s multiple sclerosis — that first pushed them into homelessness around the time of the Great Recession may complicate that wishful thinking.

If they do end up back on the streets, the Barretts would likely camp rather than seek refuge at one of the shelters, which appear to have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus (though it’s likely easier to test and track cases there than among those who are on the streets).

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Feb. 1 2019, file photo shows Ron Barrett, 55, and his wife Katherine Barrett, 54, who are homeless, trying to stay warm in their tent from the meager heat from a ceramic pot filled with candle wax. Their cold hands are blacken by the soot rising from the burning candle as temperatures dropped to 12 degrees in Salt Lake City. The Barretts later got into an apartment with the help of a federal housing voucher, but they've now been displaced because of a fire in the building this week.

The couple refused to stay in the shelter during their last stint of homelessness after they said they faced threats of violence from other residents at The Road Home’s old site in Salt Lake City. They said it was also easier to stay clean from drugs when they could separate themselves from other people experiencing homelessness.

If Raynor can find a place for her dog, Titus, to stay, she said she might try to spend a few nights in one of the new resource centers that replaced the old emergency shelter. Pets are allowed inside, but her dog hasn’t done well in those environments in the past, she said. So when they’re together, she’ll camp.

‘You can replace stuff’

The two-alarm fire began at the Embassy Apartment complex around 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Ron Barrett had gone for an early morning walk to do some tai chi about an hour before. When he arrived back at the complex, he said, “the smoke was just billowing out the side."

He ran up to the apartment, where Katherine was attempting to coax their tabby cat, Sandy, out from under the bed. Ron lifted it up, trying to grab her, but to no avail. When he stood up and his lungs filled with smoke, he realized they had to leave her and get out.

Once outside, they spared some worry about losing everything they’ve gained since they moved in last year. But Ron said they were mostly “concerned about the cat.”

“You can replace stuff,” he said.

All tenants and their pets survived the fire safely, including Sandy, and neither Raynor’s apartment nor the Barretts’ sustained any fire damage. But structural damage means they can’t return.

Three firefighters were injured in the blaze, said Salt Lake City Fire Division Chief Ryan Mellor, and one was transported to the hospital with a torn bicep.

Officials had not yet determined a cause for the blaze as of early Friday.

Emerging from the ashes of the fire may prove difficult for those displaced by it in the middle of what many have labeled an affordable housing “crisis” in the state. By some estimates, the capital city faces a dearth of 7,500 apartments affordable to renters making $20,000 or less, and rents only continue to rise.

It took the Barretts months to find an apartment that met the location and price restrictions of their federal housing voucher and a landlord who would take them with an eviction in their past. Their move came shortly after The Salt Lake Tribune published a story detailing their challenges finding a place.

Ron and Katherine Barrett at their apartment in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. (Jeremy Harmon/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

There are multiple agencies that offer housing vouchers. Kim Wilford, deputy executive director with the Salt Lake City Housing Authority, said her organization has already reached out to five individuals or families who lived in the apartment complex — including in some of the buildings that were not affected by the fire — and is working to get those who have been displaced into housing.

The housing authority is currently in contact with the Barretts to do just that, Wilford said. Two other tenants have responded that they weren’t impacted by the fire, while another two have not responded after multiple attempts by the housing authority to contact them, she said.

While the coronavirus poses some challenges in getting people rehoused, since “a lot of property management companies aren’t in their offices” at the moment and “vacancies aren’t low," Wilford said she hopes it will be a quick process for the Barretts and others who may need a place.

“Unfortunately with the earthquake and everything else," she said, “we’ve been getting practice getting them moved fast."

Housing is important for people experiencing homelessness for a number of reasons but for the Barretts, it provided an opportunity to begin focusing on issues beyond the immediate needs that took up all their time and energy on the streets: food, shelter and sleep.

“We were healing,” Katherine said.

While their new lives have been upended for now, they remained optimistic on Thursday. The fire could have been much worse; at least they have each other, their cat and a few nights to figure out their next steps.

For Raynor, it was more difficult to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, despite assurances from housing officials that they’ll get her into a new place eventually.

“Life just makes me sick right now,” she said through tears. “I just can’t believe it. I’m usually a lot more optimistic; I just don’t know how.”