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kevin cullen

Working full time in Boston — and homeless

Marilyn Dalsan, outside her longtime home in Dorchester, which caught fire last month. Photo/Kevin Cullen, Globe staff

Kevin Cullen/Globe staff

Marilyn Dalsan, outside her longtime home in Dorchester, which caught fire last month.

It is exactly 199 steps from Marilyn Dalsan’s front door to the Laundry King in Dorchester where she works, and she was there a few weeks ago when a neighbor ran into the laundromat and said her house was on fire.

Marilyn Dalsan stepped outside and looked up Stockton Street and saw the smoke pouring from the top floor of the three-decker where she’s lived for 15 years. And then she went back into the laundromat, as sirens wailed and firetrucks raced up the street.

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“I couldn’t leave,” she said the other day, standing at her familiar perch, folding laundry. “My boss was very far away. I had to wait for the person who was relieving me and I wasn’t off work for another 20 minutes. I couldn’t leave the laundromat unattended.”

And so she waited until her relief arrived and then she ran up Stockton Street and saw that the firefighters from Engine 52 and Ladder 29 had knocked down the fire. In those minutes, she lost everything.

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“All my clothes,” she said. “All my furniture. All my belongings.”

It could have been worse. Her 18-year-old son, Ryan, unbeknownst to her, had come home from school and was in their apartment, taking a late-afternoon nap, when the fire broke out. A passerby ran into the house and pounded on the doors, waking Ryan up and saving his life.

“Ryan jumped up and ran out,” his mother said. “He didn’t have time to grab anything. He only had socks on his feet. He stepped on fire, but he was in survival mode, just trying to stay alive.”

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The Red Cross gave them some money, which covered four nights at the Ramada on Morrissey Boulevard. Since then, Marilyn Dalsan and her son have relied on the kindness of neighbors and friends. They are homeless, couch surfing.

Beyond the trauma of losing her home and everything she owned, Marilyn Dalsan has come to a frightening, disillusioning realization. She has not just been burned out of her home. She has been priced out of her neighborhood.

When she moved into her two-bedroom apartment 15 years ago, the rent was $900 a month. Before she was burned out, it was $1,000.

“My landlord was good,” she said. “And we were good tenants. Never gave them any trouble. I might be late once in a while, but never a month or two months over.”

But, as the rest of the city’s rents soared, so, too, did rents even in sections of Dorchester, like hers, which have traditionally had the lowest rents in the city.

As she searches for a new place to live, Marilyn Dalsan has come face to face with a new reality, and that is the working poor of Boston can’t afford to live in Boston.

“I can afford about $1,200 or $1,250,” she said. “But I haven’t found anything around Dorchester or Mattapan less than $1,500 or $1,600. I looked at a one-bedroom and they wanted $1,850. Is this really the price?”

‘I don’t want to rely on the system. I want to rely on myself. I believe in working.’

Marilyn Dalsan, resident whose home burned 
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Marilyn Dalsan works at the Laundry King from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week. She makes $10 an hour. She is not on any form of public assistance.

“I don’t want to rely on the system,” she said. “I want to rely on myself. I don’t have Section 8. I don’t receive food stamps. I believe in working. I want to be a role model for my son.”

But principles don’t put food on the table, and they certainly don’t pay rents that keep rising even in some of the poorest sections of the city.

The other day, as she stood folding someone else’s clothes, Marilyn Dalsan saw a young man named Xavier Wyatt walk into the Laundry King. Wyatt was the guy who ran in to say her house was on fire. He returned that day to tell her that her son was OK.

“How you doin’?” Wyatt asked her, giving her a hug.

“OK,’’ she replied.

“You find a place yet?” Wyatt asked.

“No,” she said, shaking her head, staring at the floor. “It’s so hard.”

Sometimes, after a long day, she steps out of the front door of the Laundry King and instinctively turns left, ready for the 199 steps that always brought her home. Then she catches herself and realizes there’s no home to go to up the street anymore.

“I’ll be working, and I picture myself going home and taking a rest,” she says. “The other day, I walked up the street and stood there and looked at the house and reality hit me in the face. It’s not my home anymore. I don’t have a home anymore.”

She says she will keep looking for an apartment, keep apologizing to the friends who have taken pity on her and her son, keep being positive, because the alternative is no alternative.

“I’m so glad I have my job,” she said, stuffing some folded laundry into a clear plastic bag. “It takes my mind off how hard it’s been to find a place, how humbling it is to rely on others to shelter you. You don’t want to overstay your welcome. It’s hard.”

Even as she struggles to find a new home, Marilyn Dalsan is determined to meet the man who saved her son.

“I’m trying to find him, so I can thank him in person,” she said.

Outside, on the sidewalk, the charred front porch is visible through the budding trees on Stockton Street. It’s just 199 steps from the Laundry King, 199 steps to the precipice.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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