Bobbi Walker, 40, lived in her apartment for 10 months before a five-alarm fire destroyed the building on Monday.

Watching the five-alarm blaze overtake her studio apartment early Monday morning, Bobbi Walker thought about her pillow-top mattress.

She was a relatively new resident of the building at 63rd and Jefferson that was decimated by the fire — Walker moved in about 10 months ago. She had finally gotten back on her feet, having experienced homelessness and rotated in and out of Philly’s shelter system.

She adored everything about her modest apartment, and especially her pillow-top mattress, which she’d managed to track down for cheap. It became a symbol of her newfound freedom from the system.

“I never was able to afford a pillow-top before,” said Walker, 40. “I loved it.”

But that mattress — along with just about the entire Overbrook Garden apartment complex and everything in it — were damaged in the fire, beyond repair.

Walker was among more than 65 residents who were displaced earlier this week. Fortunately there were no reported injuries or fatalities among people, although some pets didn’t make it out in time. Right away, Philly officials opened up an emergency shelter at West Philadelphia High School for folks with nowhere else to go.

Has the city come up with a long-term housing plan? Not quite yet.

“I wish,” said Sadie Bynum, director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. “I wish a million times.”

No end in sight

The West Philly high school will continue hosting people in the gymnasium for the foreseeable future, Bynum said.

So far, the situation has displaced some athletic programs and forced the basketball team to reschedule a Friday night game.

“Across Philadelphia we see that there’s a need for shelter,” Bynum said. “There’s a challenge with the homeless population and finding answers and solutions for them. These folks are going to find themselves in that same situation if we’re not able to put them in something beforehand.”

But that’s not to say there aren’t short-term ideas on the table. A few residents have been able to stay with family or find new apartments on their own. A local church has a few rooms where they’re willing to host people for a few months, and the city has provided access to case workers that can help people find affordable housing options.

Though the shelter meets some immediate housing needs, it hardly scratches the surface for residents who need to replace everything.

Rebuilding their lives

OEM officials put together a massive resource fair on Friday for the shelter population. It brought together a dozen organizations that could provide services:

  • American Red Cross: casework and support
  • BenePhilly: benefits eligibility and replacement
  • HIAS PA & Nationalities Service Center (NSC): visa and green card replacement
  • PA Department of Health: birth certificate replacement
  • PA Department of Human Services: SNAP benefit replacement
  • PA Department of Insurance: insurance advocacy and support
  • PA Department of Transportation: driver’s license and ID replacement
  • Philadelphia Corporation for Aging: senior citizen benefits and housing information
  • Salvation Army: disaster survivor recovery support
  • Salvation Army: meals and refreshments (provided via food truck)
  • Medical Reserve Corps: intake and health screenings
  • Department of Behavioral Health & Intellectual disAbility Services: mental health services
  • School District of Philadelphia: the shelter itself

“This is a special day, where we’ve got all of our partner agencies,” said Bynum, the OEM director. “They set up tables and meet with folks one on one, and really dig down into their specific situation.”

Their needs are all diverse, Bynum said. Folks need everything from food and shelter to physical health screenings and counseling services.

“In some cases, it’s something as simple as getting a replacement birth certificate or ID card,” she added. “It’s sort of the first step to allowing them to rebuild their lives.”

Signs direct former Overbrook Garden residents to the temporary shelter at West Philadelphia High School. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Moving forward

It’s impossible to say how long it will take the displaced population to rebuild their lives completely. For what it’s worth, officials say the process is going about as well as it can.

“In general, the population of this shelter has been delightful,” said Debbie Tevlin, the Red Cross shelter manager on site. “They’re supporting each other.”

“I think it’s been going awesome,” added Tevlin, who handles emergency services in the Philly area all the time. “I’m impressed with how smooth it is.”

Walker, who was among the residents displaced by the fire, agrees. She’s been staying with family in Philly’s Olney section, but still visits the shelter during the day to utilize its services. The logistics, she said, are up to par.

“Philadelphia takes care of me so well,” Walker said. “My case managers are keeping me so happy.”

Despite the logistical progress, Walker’s fear lingers. Sudden disasters — like fire — can be a source of major trauma. When a gust of campfire smoke blew past Walker on Friday outside the high school, it brought her right back to the scene.

“It’s so scary,” she said, searching for the source of the smoke. “I’m so scared.

“I was happy there,” Walker added. “This is messed up. My head is messed up because of that.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...