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‘A terrible way to live’

Fire victims unsure when they will get back home

  • Donna Gilchrest and her daughter Katrina Gilchrest and their cat, Demi, have been living at the Quality Inn ever since the fire in the Mill House apartment building. While they appreciate having a place to stay, sharing a room in a hotel can be frustrating. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Donna Gilchrest and her daughter Katrina Gilchrest and their cat, Demi, have been living at the Quality Inn ever since the fire in the Mill House apartment building. While they appreciate having a place to stay, sharing a room in a hotel can be frustrating. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Katrina Gilchrest and her cat, Demi, are displaced from the Millhouse fire.   Recorder/Paul Franz

    Katrina Gilchrest and her cat, Demi, are displaced from the Millhouse fire. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Donna Gilchrest and her daughter Katrina Gilchrest and their cat, Demi, have been living at the Quality Inn ever since the fire in the Mill House apartment building. While they appreciate having a place to stay, sharing a room in a hotel can be frustrating. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Katrina Gilchrest and her cat, Demi, are displaced from the Millhouse fire.   Recorder/Paul Franz

GREENFIELD — They were preparing for the holidays when a fire changed all of their plans.

All of a sudden, Donna Gilchrest and her 21-year-old daughter Katrina found themselves living in a hotel room when fire broke out in the Mill House on Wells Street in mid-December. It’s been a month and they’re still there, not quite sure when they’ll be able to return home, but they’re hoping it will be soon.

“The worst thing is the eating part,” said Donna. “You can’t really eat healthy here. There’s nothing to cook with, except a microwave. The refrigerator is way too small to stock with anything.”

Donna and her daughter said they have been living on canned soups, bananas and apples — which the Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail has provided them each day — canned meat, and some “just add water” Kraft macaroni and cheese cups.

They live in one room with two double beds. They’re on opposite sleep schedules, so it’s not easy, they said.

“She’s a student on break who likes to stay up all night,” said Donna. “I like to be in bed at a good hour and get up around 6 a.m.”

That can be a challenge, they said, because the room is small enough that each time one moves, the other hears.

And they’ve been living in the hotel since Dec. 11 — they were one of the 15 apartments evacuated after fire broke out in the apartment above them in the Mill House on Dec. 10.

“The alarm goes off all the time, so we’ve just gotten used to it and don’t pay a lot of attention to it,” said Katrina. “That night, though, my brother was visiting and the alarm went off and he went into the hallway.”

She said when he returned he said that they needed to heed the warning and get out.

“He told us that he smelled smoke and that it was for real this time,” said Katrina.

“We grabbed what we could,” she said. “I grabbed my computer and Mom grabbed her cash and identification cards.”

Katrina said her brother grabbed the cat, put her in his backpack, and the three headed out of the building.

Donna said she’s been allowed back into the apartment a couple of times since, but only for brief periods, so she only had the chance to grab a couple of things, which hang on the walls of the hotel room.

“I just needed to feel a little like home,” she said.

Toiletries and prescription medication bottles are lined up along the sink in the hotel bathroom.

“In the early days, we’d go to reach for a Q-Tip or a nail clipper and they wouldn’t be there,” said Donna. “It was really frustrating and irritating.”

Her daughter said that since then they’ve done a little shopping, but can’t afford to replace everything.

“We’ve got those things at home,” she said.

The women said they can’t imagine how homeless families with young children live in hotel rooms for months, sometimes a year or more.

There was a recent surge of homeless families in two Greenfield hotels when the state found itself with more homeless families to the east than it had rooms.

Since then, those families have returned to apartments or hotel rooms in the Boston area, but there are still more than 30 families living in Greenfield hotels, waiting to hear that the state has found them permanent homes — some are from Franklin County and others live in the Holyoke and Springfield areas.

“This is a terrible way to live,” said Donna.

She said a hotel room can be a dream if you’ve planned a nice vacation to get away from the “real world,” but becomes a nightmare when it isn’t planned.

“It’s not the hotel’s fault,” said Donna. “It just isn’t any way to live.”

The two are sharing the room with their cat Demi, a 1-year-old rescue, who doesn’t seem to mind the tight quarters.

“She’s adapted well,” said Katrina, who has nowhere but the bed to sit on when she visits with friends or family, who stop in to see the two once in a while.

“You get so bored,” said Katrina, who has lived with her mother in the Mill House for the past eight years. “You go stir-crazy.”

Neither have a car, so they said it is difficult to get around, especially where they are located.

“It’s either a long walk to where we need to go or a $10 cab ride,” said Katrina.

“I can’t imagine being far from home, like some of the homeless families that have lived here for months,” said Donna. “They don’t have cars, they don’t know their way around, and here they are, stuck.”

Donna and her daughter said the first meal they’ll have when they return to the Mill House will probably be chicken, asparagus, and a “nice big fruit salad” with more than just apples and bananas. They said it might be seafood, if they can afford it.

They said the one godsend through their entire ordeal has been the generosity of the community.

“People have brought us meals and clothing and all sorts of things,” said Donna. “Katrina got a couple pairs of shoes and I got some new boots.”

Donna said living on a fixed income, as they do, has not helped.

“I think it actually costs more to live here, because we have to buy ready-to-eat items, which usually cost more,” she said.

Donna, 61, lives on disability and a small pension. Katrina, who is attending Greenfield Community College full time, does not work.

They said that though it has been depressing living in a hotel room, they are hopeful they will be back home, maybe even by the end of the week.

They postponed Christmas with the rest of the family, so they will celebrate that at some point, they said.

“We just aren’t sure what we’re going home to,” said Katrina. “There’s a tarp over the furniture in the living room, so we aren’t sure if our furniture was badly damaged by water during the fire. We’ll see.”

The two said a lot of damaged furniture would just add insult to injury, but they’ll deal with whatever they must.

Until then, Katrina, a computer science major, said she will continue to spend time on the Internet, do some digital art, and play video games.

Donna said she will walk to the Mill House a couple of times a week to visit with friends and do some volunteering.

“We’ll just keep plugging,” said Donna. “And we’ll hope good things for the homeless families living here with us. At least we know that we have a home to go to at some point soon.”

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan said the cause of the fire was accidental, but because it has been determined it was not a criminal act, it will be the insurance company that insures the people who lived in the apartment where the fire started that will determine the exact cause.

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