The neighborhood hoarder
Part 2. The Players: Owner, Leader, Neighbors, The City, Saboteurs working against you
The Owner: The first and most important thing in doing a clean-up is, you have to get the owner’s permission. And get it in writing. Without that, you’re nowhere. For good reasons, private property is protected under American Law. If it’s on public right-of-way that’s different, you can push that, maybe work with the city if there’s a car in the easement or something, but if you go onto someone else’s yard, throw a bunch of junk in a box truck, and take it to the dump, you’re asking for a law suit. Plus hard feelings.
During the clean-up you always, always, always want to remember two things:
1. Be respectful of the owner. Remember that owners of these places are often hyper sensitive to what’s happening. It’s very stressful for them. Assume they can see and hear you even if you don’t see or hear them. They’re also grieving for all that stuff going away. Maybe they perceive it as a needed barrier to the outside world or as throwing out items they associate with family members who have died. Or maybe they think it belongs to someone else. For them, every item out there has a story.
It would be a disaster to be in the middle of a successful pick-up only to have the owner come out and tell everyone to get lost because he or she overheard someone making fun of the place, the smell, or whatever.
2. Remember it’s not your house. That’s hard when you’ve been hard at work for a week or two. Tempting as it is push the envelope and go beyond the scope of work the owner agreed to, you shouldn’t without permission.
In our case, the clean-up was limited to outside. The owner hardly ever came out in the weeks we were cleaning his yard. This was good in the sense that he wasn’t picking up item by item and deciding whether he wanted to keep it. Which he probably would have. In the form he signed (below) he agreed we could remove everything in the yard except the two garbage cans. It was helpful that I knew his dad and could affirm that he was honoring his parent’s memories by taking care of the place. Also, if we found valuables, like commemorative coins, we saved them for him which built trust.
Leader: Someone has to lead this thing. If you want it done badly enough, that’s could well be you. Own it. That said, set limits for yourself. You have to decide what exactly is your goal and how much of your life you’re going to invest. It’s important to plan a time slot as if you’re the only one who is going to be working. You want a start date and an end date.
It’s straightforward to organize details like what you’re going to do with all the stuff, talk to the city if needs be, maintain contact with the owner. When the community wants to help, have jobs for them according to what they’re able to do.
Be mellow and grateful to everyone who comes to help. People stick around and work harder when they feel appreciated. Especially when they’re not getting paid. If someone has a different idea about how to get something done, and they’re going to do it, that’s great! You don’t want to come across as, “Hey, this is my project!” or be an attention seeking drama queen, “Look at me! Look at all I’ve done!”
Neighbors who help: All our neighbors going by on the street wanted to know what was happening. When we told them the most common response was, “What can we do to help?” For me that was one of the best things about this project. Probably the most intelligent response—a good one to remember in case you volunteer for a project like this that someone else is leading—was from a man and his wife who said, “We can work on this three days.” As it turned out, they worked hard every day for a week, and put in extra time past that after they got off work. Plus they had a big pick-up truck for dump runs and they thought to bring rakes one day which sounds so simple but made a dramatic difference in how the yard looked after we’d moved the junk. The point is, they set reasonable limits at the get-go and everyone appreciated that they went beyond.
There was a home-school mom who came over several days with her son. They’re part of a Coast Guard family and they did a lot of work. Had great energy. A wonderful couple from down the street volunteered to take all the hazardous materials to the city’s haz-waste disposal facility. They made five runs with their Subaru packed full on each—God bless ‘em. Another couple offered to help pay for dump fees and to get in touch with a community services provider to see what could be done to help the owner, and his adult child who also lives there, in the long term. Being worried it might spook the owner I asked that they hold off until we finished cleaning up the outside. They agreed.
Yet another older man stopped in his truck, said he had some medical issues and couldn’t lift much but he gave me his business card and said if there was anything he could do to give him a call.
Neighbors who offer to help but don’t: One guy, middle age, in good shape, with a truck, who’d complained about the house for years offered to help, twice, but never showed up. That was odd. But it was nothing compared to the couple living right next door to the hoarder at the time. I’ll call them Bill and Carol. Bill was the most perfectly spherical person I’ve ever met. He never engaged or even acknowledged we were there. Carol, on the other hand, let everyone who’d listen, including us, know that she was organizing the clean-up. She never lifted a finger but we got a lot of comic relief out of her antics. Take the tires, for example.
Because used tires have to be shipped out on a barge getting rid of them is really expensive. One of our biggest problems was 64 car tires in the yard. Carol came over and informed us she’d had lunch with the (Coast Guard) Admiral’s wife and that the Coast Guard was organizing a work party and in two days they were going to pick up all the tires. We were stoked. Then I asked what they were going to do with them. She told me the Coast Guard owns an island and they’d take the tires there and burn them. Oh Oh. Full stop. Carol is crackers.
Next she told us that Costco’s tire department had agreed to take all the tires for free. The home-school mom offered to get her husband’s truck and take them out there. I said, “Let’s hold off until I call Costco.” The guy at Costco said no, they don’t take dozens of tires from somebody’s yard. After that Carol told us she’d be by at 2 p.m. next day with a truck and pick up the tires. She never showed and later said a friend of hers had been sick. The great part for us was, she’d come out and water her lawn or putter around her yard while we were all working twenty feet away and tell us she’d be over to help tomorrow. She became our meme if things bogged down. “Carol’s going to take care of that.”
One of the first things I remember about moving into the neighborhood over twenty years ago was a woman asking me to sign a petition demanding that the city clean up Old Dave’s yard. Being new, and having met Old Dave, who was one of those fascinating characters you’d have to gate back as a writer because readers would think he was too over the top, I declined. Which made the woman mad. Anyway, as noted above, the owner’s son was going to get rid of the junk in the yard when his dad passed, so I let it be. Dave lived a long time. Then, with the mess still there two years after Old Dave passed on, and it was growing, I got involved.
It’s a set-up if you think about it. Some city official, inevitably just hired in the job, is supposed to clean up blighted properties, some worse than what we had, while staying inside the law and keeping the city out of court. He or she is immediately smacked around by a group of neighbors who’ve been looking at that crap for decades and, “Jesus H. Christ when are you guys going to do something?” Letters, emails, photos: all sorts of documentation piles up.
The official takes the first job transfer that comes along. The neighbors, who’ve seen them come and go, are left with the unfortunate who replaces the last person that accomplished nothing. The new person explains they’re new and they have to come up to speed with what’s happening. It drags on another year, or two, or three, and that person transfers out. Repeat.
So, yes. They’ve got a tough job. On the other hand, when I was dealing with certain city officials on this, I’d be listening to excuses and thinking, “If Al Capone had a gun to this guy’s head, and this guy knew beyond doubt that the next time he said, ‘I can’t.’ Capone would shoot him. He’d be a dead man.”
Homeowners have more clout in this scenario than they realize. The city official and the hoarder are alike in that what they want most is to be left alone. Community newspapers have slow days and when a hoarder place gets bad enough that it makes the front page—well that just turns the scrutiny burner up high. And! Most papers will do follow-ups every so often if nothing gets cleaned up. Make friends with the reporters. If you have pictures of bears eating garbage in the yard, that’s great. Make them public. If another house or houses have been in the paper for hoarding, even a hint that you may be going to the press might be enough to break something loose.
One summer the latest city official stuck between our neighborhood and Dave’s place let us know he had hired a contractor to clean it up. Well great. Except that clean-up fell through for some reason and nothing happened. The following spring he told us again that a contractor was going to clean up the yard. He enthusiastically let us know the contractor would clean the yard up to the edge of the eaves of the house. That was better than nothing but since there was garbage piled against the house, under the eaves (including the unplugged freezer full of rotten food) along the length of it, it was still going to be ugly as hell. Plus the city would feel that it had done something and that would be that for years to come as stuff began to accrue in the yard again.
Though I sometimes felt the city official hadn’t done much, he’d actually provided a crucial piece, in fact THE crucial piece, for us by leaving an extensive, increasingly emphatic, paper trail with the owner advising him there would be no more dodging. A clean-up was going to happen, soon, period. The great danger for Dave was that a clean-up contractor could charge tens of thousands of dollars, and the city could go after Dave for reimbursement. If they did, and he couldn’t pay, he could lose his home. Then too, if the city were to look too closely at the place, they might flat-out condemn it as a health and safety hazard.
The city cleanup as planned wasn’t going to satisfy the neighbors and it certainly wasn’t what Dave wanted. But it was going forward. Just days before it was to happen Dave made a rare appearance outside. My dear wife saw him, went over and said from her heart, “Dave, why don’t you let us help you?”
He said, “I’d really appreciate that.”
Wow! After more than twenty years. He agreed. I was amazed. And grateful. And wanted it in writing. Here’s the contract I wrote up:
May 19, 2019
Hi Dave, Thanks for agreeing to a neighborhood work party and pick-up outside your home.
When: Between May 19, 2019 and June 30, 2019.
Where: Your place, 123 Our Street, Juneau.
What can be picked up and hauled out: Anything/everything outside in the yard, or spilling into the yard, except the two garbage cans.
Who will do the pick-up: Neighbors.
Who will pay for pick-up and disposal: Pick up will be free. We will figure out disposal costs but there will be no charge to you.
I Dave Lottastuff agree to the pickup party as outlined above.
Notice a couple things.
1. There’s a start date and an end date. That was to let people, including me, know this wasn’t going to go on forever so there’s an impetus to go after it. It was enough time for me to do it myself if I had to.
2.It let the owner know the date when he’d have his yard and privacy back.
3. Anything/everything in the yard can go. Very important. That means just what it says. Junk cars, tires, tools, boxes of clothes, books, food, everything.
4. That part about ‘spilling into the yard’ is for stuff that piled in or against the house (as high as ten feet or protruding from under an uncloseable garage door) that could have fallen into the yard.
4. The owner knows he’s not going to get stuck with the bill.
5. The owner knows he’s dealing with neighbors (who are less intimidating than the city or contractors.)
6. There are two witnesses. I wanted another neighbor as witness so no one could come back and say I fabricated the whole thing, or tricked the owner, or anything like that.
My next door neighbor, Dave, and I all signed.
I contacted the city official at once to let him know the neighborhood was taking responsibility for the clean-up and to call off the contractor. He didn’t say it but this required a leap of faith on the city guy’s part that he trusted us to follow through. But he did. It was on.
Saboteurs working against you:
This one came as a surprise. Who would try to sabotage a clean-up once you have the owner’s permission, right? We had a couple such jokers. If you should encounter them, be advised:
They don’t own the house. Let them know it. They’re another reason you want the owner’s permission in writing.
They’re master manipulators taking advantage of the owner and they will try to manipulate you, city officials, social workers, anyone they can.
They’ve been down this road before—a lot.
They’re career victims, forever in search of their next oppressor. Whatever happens, it’s someone else’s fault. Including people who help them. They’ll blame the owner, the city, their ex-wife, parents, family, police, the judge, you (but probably not to your face) everyone but themselves.
They’ll sap your energy if you engage them.
They’ll size you up immediately and decide which tactic to use. Sob story, victimhood, threatening a lawsuit, maybe even physically posturing. Long story short—they’re assholes.
The good news in our case was, once we called their bluff, they backed off.
Our problem child was mainly a character I’ll call Don Roman. A smallish, old, passive-aggressive man, Don is a hoarder himself who used to own a house in town. It became so bad his next-door neighbors moved out. After years of trying to get action from the city, other neighbors got his place featured in the paper. He started getting tickets and ultimatums from the city. Lot’s of those. Turned out he’d morphed his house into several illegal apartments that were not up to code. He ended up in court. The judge found his manipulations irritating enough that she told him if he came before the bench again, “Bring your toothbrush.” Don worked in Juneau during tourist season and left Alaska in winter leaving the house with people in the illegal apartments. Utility bills went unpaid. Eventually, utilities were shut off resulting in sewage backing up inside. The place was condemned.
Don’s fiasco at that house dragged on for years. He exasperated lawyers, consumed hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of city officials’ time, cost the community over $70,000 in clean-up expenses and other costs, and tried to sue our city from another state (the judge threw that out). During those years he was hassling with the city, Don made friends with our neighbor Old Dave. As it came clear Don was going to lose his place, he set himself to recreating it at Dave’s. He brought in several old cars, literally tons of junk, and one of his former tenants who had a pick-up truck with a shell camper that the tenant backed into Dave’s yard and set up house keeping. That guy, I’ll call him ‘Ren Ren’ because he’d work on one of the beater cars and rev the engine at all hours of the day and night, would have his milk and other food on top of the camper. He’d leave during the summer and show up for a few weeks in spring and fall. For a couple years he’d go somewhere else for the winter except one year he spent the whole winter in the back of the truck. Ren Ren, who seemed a decent enough guy, apparently saw the handwriting on the wall when city officials began showing up on a regular basis. He departed and didn’t come back.
Don himself had become a seasonal squatter downstairs at Old Dave’s. After Old Dave died, Ron continued returning year after year, each time bringing his stuff in thrift store luggage that he’d leave in the basement. Next year he’d arrive with another set. He wouldn’t tell Dave he was coming. Dave said he didn’t pay him rent or even tell him that he was staying there. He’d just let himself in to the basement (which is packed floor to ceiling with stuff—much of it Don’s) and come and go. For whatever reason, Dave couldn’t confront him. So it went.
A few days after we began the clean-up Dave let me know that the night before, his daughter had told him, “There’s someone in the basement.” Don was back.
to be continued. Next up: The clean-up.