Difficult to help those forced from an uninhabitable home
By Amy LAvalley Post-Tribune correspondent October 27, 2012 6:34PM
A nearly-full dumpster and garbage bags are signs of work going on at the home of Deborah's Brewer's Portage home Wednesday Oct. 24, 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:21AM
In some ways, Deborah Brewer is lucky.
Lucky because a neighbor called Porter County Animal Control to complain about the smell emanating from Brewer’s house from her many pets.
Lucky because that call set off a series of events that forced Brewer to take control of her situation, including the condition of her home and her own mental health.
Lucky because she has co-workers, friends and family to help her clean her house so she can stay there and provide the support and labor to see her through.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Officials from an assortment of agencies said they field calls about people in dire straits all the time, and finding ways to help them isn’t always easy.
On Oct. 15, Porter County Animal Control officers took seven dogs and a cat from Brewer’s Union Township home, which had been without running water for two months and was inches-deep in animal excrement. The animals were taken to the Porter County Animal Shelter.
Because of the condition of the house, the Porter County Health Department expedited a repair or vacate order, which gave Brewer 10 days to make the home livable or move out. Brewer is cleaning up her home in the Salt Creek Commons subdivision.
“I don’t want it to come to that,” Brewer said about the possibility of having to vacate her home. “I want to get it all cleaned up.”
Sometimes, under a repair or vacate order, an occupant remains in the house but does not clean it up. Then, said David Hollenbeck, the Health Department attorney, the department can file a complaint in Porter Superior Court asking for a finding that the house is unfit for human habitation and that it be vacated until it is in compliance.
Such cases are “nightmares for us and everyone else,” said Health Department administrator Ken Letta, as officials try to figure out how best to help the home’s occupant and answer the question of where the resident will go if they are forced out of their home.
“That’s why we’re relatively reluctant to do that,” Letta said.
The Health Department often works in concert with state agencies such as Adult Protective Services to help locate family, find the person a place to live, and get them a mental health evaluation, Hollenbeck said.
The Health Department used to have a budget for cleaning up such homes. Now, the agency enlists manpower from people ordered to do community service for low-level crimes, Hollenbeck said, or pays for the clean-up and puts a lien on the home to recoup the costs.
The first priority in such cases, Letta and Hollenbeck said, is getting the occupant out of the house.
“These are the most difficult cases that we deal with,” Letta said.
Such stories are hardly unique. Letta said his department sees about 10 cases similar to Brewer’s each year, though this case is one of the worst he’s seen. Hollenbeck said that in the 40 years he’s been attorney for the Health Department, he’s handled about 100 of these cases, and half of them are worse than this one.
Other agencies report similar concerns.
Bruce Lindner, executive director of Porter County Aging and Community Services, said he regularly gets calls from people who tell him a neighbor isn’t going out and has no food or family nearby to check on them.
“My approach always has been, if you’re the neighbor and you’re concerned enough to call about this, are you willing to take the next step and take legal guardianship for this person? If not, it falls back in the cracks to where they were,” Lindner said.
His agency is designed to help people who come in and ask for assistance, for heating bills, transportation and emergency assistance for shelter.
“Unfortunately, these things are more common than you think they would be,” Union Township Trustee Anthony Pampalone said.
He once brought food from the township’s food pantry to a residence and realized their people’s living conditions were beyond his scope. Pampalone was able to work with local agencies to get the people into a better situation.
Folks who meet income guidelines can apply for assistance from Pampalone’s office, and receive referrals for services from there. A lot of times, though, people turn down offers of assistance.
Brewer, for her part, is determined to move forward.
“I’m going to function again,” she said. “I will.”