Family is everything to Tiffany Kelley, so when her mother, Judy Binckley, was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, moving in together was a no-brainer. 

In 2019, they moved into the historic Avalon Building, a landmark in downtown Newark. The Avalon was saved from demolition in 2004 with a renovation project designed to provide housing to low-income seniors 55 and older. 

Kelley was determined to turn their apartment into a beautiful home, going out of her way to thrift antiques and craft a cozy, comfortable aesthetic for her and Binckley.

“I was so proud, because I was building up our apartment,” Kelley said. “It’s just me and mom, so we don’t have a lot. But I bought a new couch six months ago.”

Her efforts paid off. The view of the historic Licking County Courthouse two blocks east of their bay window was complemented by antique furniture Kelley meticulously collected. 

On Saturday, March 23, a two-alarm fire ravaged the 124-year-old Avalon Building. All 24 residents in 20 senior apartments made it out of the burning building without injury, and many found immediate shelter in the Licking County Library across the street. 

Nearly a month after the fire, more than half of those former residents are still looking for permanent housing, according to local officials.

Damage to the building was severe, but after an initial inspection, structural engineers said that the building was stable enough for former residents to retrieve belongings, according to Nathan Keirns, chief executive officer of LEADS, the Newark-based community action agency that owns the Avalon Building.

The agency hired a contractor to install durable plastic sheets over charred holes in the roof of the Victorian-era landmark on West Main Street.

Now that rain isn’t falling into the structure, Keirns said inspection teams will pull down drywall to get a closer look at the bones of the building to determine whether it can be restored.

Hours after the blaze on March 23, fire officials and Keirns were concerned that fire damage and the amount of water poured by firefighters onto the east end of the Avalon might have weakened the structure.

Demolition is still a possibility, but Keirns said LEADS should know within a week or two whether it can be restored.

“Our goal remains to save it,” he said. “We’re looking at all contingencies.”

In the days and weeks that followed the fire, residents were forced to seek other accommodations. Some were able to move in with family and friends, at least temporarily, while others secured apartments in an already limited housing market.

But others, like Kelley and Binckley and their two cats, remain in hotels while the building undergoes inspection.

The community in Newark responded to their needs with haste. Newark Homeless Outreach founder Patricia Perry posted on Facebook about the fire and the victims’ need for resources.

“The community is phenomenal,” she said. “We post a need and we normally have it quickly. It was an overwhelming amount of support. That night when I got home, my front porch was full of stuff. I got it to them the next day. What they were able to use, they used.”

What they were unable to use, the organization passed along to others, like their neighbor who goes by the name Colors, who alerted everyone in the building of the fire. 

“The electrical unit right above her apartment caught on fire,” Kelley said.

The fire spread into Colors’, 304, where she and her uncle discovered the fire. “We heard a loud pop, like a bullet shot,” said Colors. “Like POW!”

She called 911, and ran into the hall, knocking on her neighbors’ doors to alert everyone to get out.

“She’s the one that saved us all,” Kelley said. 

By the time Kelley and her mother were awake, the fire had spread significantly. 

“At 10:30 in the morning, my alarm was going off, and then I heard the fire alarm,” Kelley said. “I’m still half asleep. I’m thinking they’re testing them because they do that regularly. The next thing I heard was the pounding on the door, ‘Get out! The building is on fire.’ As soon as the door opened with the firemen, you [could] smell the smoke, you knew that it was actually on fire.”

Binckley and Kelley had to leave so quickly that they could not retrieve their cats, Jake and Walter. 

“My mom’s cat was in the window trying to get out. I ran up to the firemen and asked him if he could just please break the window so that my cat could get out. And he said that it would jeopardize the firemen if they did that. So they couldn’t get him. His little face was in the window,” Kelley said.

Luckily, on Friday, March 29, Jake and Walter both returned alive and well, albeit dirty. Kelley and Binckley were over the moon to be reunited, as are their resilient feline companions.

Following the fire, Binckley and Kelley found shelter at the America’s Best Value Inn in Heath.

“It’s a good feeling and a good position to be in to be able to help when the call for need comes in,” said Amanda Farley, front desk manager and assistant general manager at the inn.

The day of the fire, Kelley reached out to her boss, Joshua McLaughlin, at the Holiday Inn Express in Heath to ask for the day off that day because of the fire, and to ask if she and her mother could stay in one of the spare rooms that evening. 

She said he told her that it was still early in the day and she could make it to her second-shift job, and he would not give her a room at the hotel.

“He told me it was against policy,” Kelley said. “I said, ‘One of your employees has just lost everything they own in a house fire. And you can’t give me one room to bring my mother? She has cancer.” 

Kelley has since lost her job at the hotel, although McLaughlin said he did not fire her. 

“She’s saying this whole side of the story like she’s this victim, when it’s not the case at all,” he told The Reporting Project. “This is her trying to play the victim. ‘Oh, poor me, my house burned down and they fired me, too.’ It’s typical Tiffany.” 

Without a job, finding housing has become even more complicated for Kelley, who has already been turned down by a landlord due to lack of employment. 

The tight housing market in Newark complicates the search. Because of low supply and high demand, housing prices and rents have increased dramatically in Licking County and across central Ohio in recent years. 

“We’ve been battling this for years,” Rod Cook, executive director of the East Central Ohio Red Cross Chapter in Newark, said in March. “The shortage of affordable housing creates big issues for us in finding places for people to relocate.”

The county experienced a similar crisis last summer when up to 60 people were forced out of a Buckeye Lake motel after a building inspector said he found health and safety issues there.

Despite all of their hardships and obstacles, Kelley and Binckley remain resilient and grateful. 

“God just stepped in where we couldn’t. And he’s taken care of everything,” Binckley said. “I can’t fathom the goodness of people. Now that’s money out of their pocket that they’re giving.”

On Easter Sunday, March 31, Kelley and Binckley moved to the DoubleTree Hotel in Newark, where their renters’ insurance will keep them sheltered for the time being. Kelley credits her mother’s preparedness. 

“Mom saved the day with her renter’s insurance. She thinks about all that stuff. And she had it,” Kelley said. 

Not everyone in the Avalon was so lucky.

“Coming from the shelter, trying to just survive, It [renters insurance] just wasn’t important to me at that time,” said Colors, who spent time at the Salvation Army shelter in Newark. “Being that it is not a tenant’s fault, I’m hoping that the landlords will help us get back on our feet regardless of whether we had renters insurance or not.”

Without renters insurance, getting compensation for lost belongings and finding a new place to live becomes a steep hill with little traction. Colors is still experiencing intense trauma from the incident, and anxiety from her shelter insecurity. 

“You try to focus and think that everything is going to be okay, but I’m devastated because I’ve actually seen the fire,” Colors said. “I wake up sometimes and I’m dreaming that this fire is there. I never imagined not having no clothes, not having no food. I feel empty.”

It’s not clear where Colors is currently staying, but she does have a gofundme set up with the goal of $5,000.

Despite trauma, and their futures being up in the air, Kelley, Binckley, and Colors are still looking out for each other.

“Tiffany brought me a coat here and brought me some shirts because we literally didn’t have no clothes,” Colors said. 

This story was updated Friday, April 19 at 11:40 a.m. to correct the spelling of Binckley’s name.

Noah Fishman writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.

Alan Miller, of The Reporting Project, contributed to this story.