Roshunda Tilley was making steaks, mashed potatoes and green beans when a neighbor called with disturbing news that someone had set their SUV on fire.
A day earlier, Tilley and several residents of the Highlands Hills Apartments had learned that their homes had been broken into overnight. TVs, PlayStation consoles, and games had been ripped from Tilley’s apartment.
Tilley was already in shock after being moved about two weeks ago when an apartment building southeast of Oak Cliff blew up. She did not live in the building that was destroyed on September 29, but she stayed in hotels because utilities were cut.
Tilley takes care of nine children between the ages of 2 and 16. She also takes care of her 25 year old daughter who uses a wheelchair. She said she learned of the SUV fire while she was working. She cooked for her non-profit employer who provides hot meals to food insecure children.
Dallas Fire-Rescue said the SUV fire was reported shortly before midnight Thursday, but there was no lead. Police say one person was arrested in connection with the break-ins, but the investigation is continuing.
“I try to stay strong for my kids,” Tilley said. “I don’t want my kids to see me cry; I’m not going to do this. If they see me cry, they’ll think I gave up, and I’ll never give up. I just do what I can.
“Fear for his life”
Tilley and around 250 other residents who were displaced by the blast face an uncertain future.
Some of the buildings at the Highland Hills Apartments are still off-limits because the management company has shut off the water and gas at the Highland Hills Drive complex while it assesses the damage. The building that exploded had to be demolished and city inspectors are studying the structural integrity of two neighboring buildings.
The city has paid for hotel stays over the past two weeks, but that will end on Tuesday.
In addition to facing the uncertainty of where to live, many residents face other challenges.
Some said they were struggling to send their children to school and had received little or no advice from property managers. A few are even considering suing the management company.
Dylan Bess, an Atlanta-based attorney for Morgan and Morgan, a Florida-based law firm, said at least five people have expressed a desire to keep the law firm.
He said he was disappointed with the lack of accommodation and response from the property management company. The socio-economic status of displaced residents should not affect how they are treated, he said.
“The management company certainly has the resources to do a few things; one of operating a property in a safe manner and not allowing such things to happen, ”Bess said. “But when they do, to fully support the people who have paid them rent.”
Odin Properties, the Philadelphia-based company that manages Highland Hills Apartments, did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email sent to residents recently, the management company said it was trying to restore utilities to all buildings near the apartment explosion. The company said it was still assessing the two buildings next to the blast site, but wanted to get residents back to their homes.
“Our wish is to have exterior repairs carried out shortly” so that residents can relocate, the company wrote.
Even though she could come back, Tilley said she wasn’t sure she would go back.
“My oldest daughter is more terrified than anyone,” she said. “Who can say that we are going home and that this will not happen again?” My daughter is afraid for her life, and I am afraid for everyone’s life.
Help the city to end
Residents, who are scattered across four different hotels, were told on Monday that the city’s emergency management office would stop paying for stays after Tuesday.
Rocky Vaz, director of the Dallas Emergency Management Office, said the deadline was decided based on when the apartments would have utilities again. He said the city would adjust its plans if necessary.
“Right now we have extended it to [Oct. 19] but we are continually monitoring repairs and communicating with the owner of the complex, ”said Vaz.
The condition of buildings 5730 and 5706, located right next to the blast site, is still “on hold,” Vaz said, adding that repairs to both properties could last until the end of the month.
The city’s deadline for providing hotel rooms to residents will still apply to those who have been moved from both properties, Vaz said.
Several residents also said The news that an additional obstacle to their situation is the lack of transport for their children to go to school.
Chanté Nakapaahu, who lives in building 5706, has been living with a friend since the explosion. Her friend lives about 30 minutes from the schools her children attend, and Nakapaahu said providing them with transportation is an added stress.
“It’s an additional factor that I have to navigate every day with the move,” Nakapaahu said.
Christina Hernton, 34, who lives in the same apartment building as Nakapaahu, said Catholic Charities provided small grants to residents to help them adjust to their temporary living situations, but added that most of that money was spent on gas to bring her children back on the bus and out of school.
“There has to be some type of housing with the kids and the schools,” Hernton said.
Dallas ISD spokeswoman Robyn Harris said the district is trying to find out which families in the district need services.
She encouraged families whose children require assistance with transportation or other educational needs to contact the neighborhood through its education program for the homeless.
Harris said the program, which helps families experiencing homelessness in the short and long term, is poised to help families affected by the apartment blast.
“We have made ourselves available to families who have expressed a need,” said Harris.
City council member Tennell Atkins, whose District 8 encompasses the apartment complex, said his office and other community organizations were working to help residents.
“I am worried about the residents who have been displaced,” he said. “We are doing everything in our power to make sure that they are safe now and that when they return they will have a safe place to go. “
Since the day of the explosion, the local nonprofit Not My Son has provided residents with food, hygiene items and other resources, such as computer stations to find new places to live.
Tramonica Brown, the organization’s founder and executive director, said the group has helped at least 15 families find new places to live.
She stressed that even though the explosion happened more than two weeks ago, its effects will persist.
“We are working with other nonprofits to help residents pay for the costs of finding new apartments so that we can give them as much fresh start as possible,” said Brown.
For Rahim Budhwani, 30, and his fiancée, Sarah Shuker, 36, life right now is full of unknowns.
They lived on the second floor of the building which exploded. Since they cannot return home, they try to find new accommodation.
She said the couple’s lease application was recently turned down by a nearby apartment complex following a credit check.
“We’re just looking for anything that can work,” she said, “and right now it’s a bit of a struggle.”
In addition to losing her house and all of their furniture, Shuker said she lacked valuable personal items, including a collection of porcelain enamel dolls that she has kept since she was 5 years old. One of them is the first doll she has ever had. She also lost her mother’s hand-made wedding dress.
Work crews were at the site of the blast on Friday afternoon, loading trucks with debris left by the demolished building.
A few hundred yards outside Tilley’s apartment, what was left of his GMC Yukon sat alone in the oddly empty parking lot. A faint smell of burnt rubber and plastic lingered around what was left of his SUV.
A ring of glass, blackened by the fire, surrounded the burnt vehicle. Inside were ragged clothes, charred car seats, and mutilated electronics.
Insurance will help pay for vehicle damage, Tilley said, but the recent explosion, vehicle fire and burglaries have robbed him of his peace of mind.
“It scares the hearts of my kids – that’s what bothers me,” Tilley said.