Could homeless drug users take over your house? According to some residents of Springfield, yes, because it happened to them. Elderly property owners were stuck with thousands of dollars in damages and unpaid heating bills after squatters moved into their homes. They say the lengthy eviction process favors tenants too much, and forced them to financially support people who took advantage of them.
Carolyn Blake-Bashaw, 78, left her stepson, Sam Colby, in charge of her house while she went on vacation last November. After her husband, Bob Deyo, died, she had begun dating a fellow she met in the Springfield Senior Center Singing Group, and the two of them tied the knot last fall. Then they left for a two-week honeymoon, leaving Colby the keys to her house.
“He had a wonderful heart, and he wanted to help these people,” said Blake-Bashaw. “But it turned on him, and it turned on me.”
Colby, a recovering drug addict, invited some people he knew to stay in the upstairs apartment on Pine Street.
“He drew up a contract, and they broke it,” said Blake-Bashaw. When she got back from her honeymoon, it took her a while to realize what was going on. Her present husband has a house in Charlestown, where she currently resides.
“I didn't realize they were there at first,” said Blake-Bashaw. “I didn't use the upstairs.” The house on Pine Street is a duplex with an upstairs apartment; the apartment has a separate entrance up a flight of wooden stairs.
No teeth in the law
According to local landlord Eugene Guy, that was her first mistake.
“If you have outside doors, they'll get in,” said Guy. “The homeless — drug users, squatters. You've got to keep the doors locked. If you have outside doors, and there's somebody roaming, looking for a place to be, they'll get in.”
“It's one of those liberal Vermont laws. If they get into a place and stay for a while, you have to evict them,” said Guy. “I've had people tell me they wouldn't be a Vermont landlord for the world.”
Blake-Bashaw realized her son had fallen off the wagon, and his “friends,” the couple in the upstairs apartment weren't clean, either. She said she went to them first. “I thought I could talk them into getting out.”
By then it was midwinter, and the couple told her they weren't leaving. Blake-Bashaw further alleges that the man threatened to throw her off the second-floor porch.
She called the police. According to Springfield police who investigated the complaint, the couple told them Colby had given them permission to stay there. Police advised Blake-Bashaw to file an eviction notice.
“You are now a landlord, they told me,” said Blake-Bashaw. “I was told by the police they could claim residency if they came with a suitcase and stayed three days.”
Marjorie Burbank, another resident of Springfield, 76, had a similar problem. Her tenant, someone she knew previously, had come to Burbank's three-bedroom house straight from jail, saying she needed a place to live. Burbank agreed on condition the tenant didn't use drugs, but she said her tenant not only began using drugs again, but brought other drug users into her house.
“You go to Woodstock to court and they have up to six months to fight an eviction notice,” said Burbank. “It took me a whole year to get rid of her.”
“Sometimes Carolyn and I used each other's shoulders to cry on, over the phone,” said Burbank. “If we hadn't had each other, I don't know how I would have got through it. They brought in heroin, cocaine, bath salts... [the tenant] was stealing stuff from my basement and selling it.”
Blake-Bashaw said she started the legal process of eviction in January. She wasn't receiving rent, and further she was paying heat and electric on the apartment.
Bills piling up
Burbank, who takes care of her 99-year-old mother, found herself sleeping on a cot in her own living room. The woman staying in her house brought a male friend, and while Burbank had started with good intentions to help the woman, she was overwhelmed.
“I was feeding two extra people I didn't want. I have an $800 fuel bill I'm still trying to pay,” said Burbank. “I knew they were under the drugs, and the police wouldn't remove them.”
Unlike Blake-Bashaw, Burbank did get rent: the state of Vermont sent her $40 a week for her tenants. “That doesn't include showers, heat, hot water. They ate my food.”
Burbank recently got rid of two of her unwelcome guests, leaving one more whose eviction date is soon. She's lost possessions she had stored in the basement, and she's struggling with an overdue fuel bill as summer rolls to a close.
Blake-Bashaw asked for help from Vermont Legal Aid, who gave her advice on how to conduct the eviction process. It cost her $200 to file the eviction. “I went to court in White River Junction,” she said. “I talked to the judge, who said she determined they were not a threat to me.”
She couldn't pay the water and sewer bills, so she let the water get turned off. Then, she said, the fire department told her that was illegal and she had to turn it back on.
“I had to pay out of my Social Security to support two people who were perfectly able to work,” she said. “I had to let my taxes on the house go. I let my insurance on the house go. I had no money left. I was supporting them.”
Blake-Bashaw missed a court date due to sickness, and then decided to take the advice of a friend, who suggested paying the couple to leave. That worked, but when the squatters were finally gone and she went in the apartment, what she saw brought her to tears.
Sewage had backed up into the tub because the toilet was clogged with drug paraphernalia. The outside door had been broken. Holes were punched in the walls, the medicine cabinet broken, cigarette burns everywhere.
“My husband and I had lived there 22 years,” she said. “I don't build my life around material things, but there were all kinds of things that were gone — marriage certificates, my antiques were gone.”
“The police said, 'You should feel sorry for them; they have no home,'” said Blake-Bashaw, who said she's lost over $7,000 because of the squatters. “The fact remains that was my home for 22 years and I lost everything.”
Blake-Bashaw is currently working with her insurance company to recoup some of the loss of value to her house, which was recently reassessed to below what she owes on the mortgage. The Springfield police department said they are supplying information to the insurance company.
-- GLYNIS HART