This is the story of the eviction of Fred, an elderly man living with disability, from Bleak House in August, 2014. It demonstrates how failure of the formal system of landlord, agencies, and the safety net can lead to the use of bullying by the informal system. I ask why a person clearly in need of significant additional support for many years was not better served by neighbors, management, and agencies. READ MORE
Bleak House is privately-owned by Charitable Landlords, and is a HUD-subsidized multi-family residence for elderly and disabled persons located in Riverby, MA.
This story explores several issues and raises more questions than it answers:
- how do we deal with people who make us uncomfortable—do we act out of concern or by bullying the person;
- the ability of social service agencies to intervene in support of a person who may not take good care of himself;
- the responsibility and capacity of the landlord to intervene in support of a person who may not take good care of himself and creates a health hazard for other residents;
- the right of a person to autonomy and independence;
- how far must the community go to accommodate the right of persons living with disability to enable them to live in the community;
- balancing personal rights against the rights of the community, including the landlord and management, as well as other residents;
- And the story exemplifies how, when the formal system fails, the stage is set for the informal system to address the problem with bullying.
How can we balance the rights of an individual to autonomy and independence with the expectations of the community when the individual fails to conform? Should we reach out to him in concern, or to contact an agency, or would we find ourselves eager to get rid of him, and perhaps bullying him? As I learned the story of Fred, I wondered how management, residents, and agencies might have intervened in the situation so that Fred would have gotten the support and help he needed to continue in independent living; or a timely transition to another setting.
Seventy-seven year old Fred has long, curly black hair with streaks of white, wears shorts and athletic shoes without socks, and his legs are bruised; he stands and walks stooped over, and carries a striped shopping bag over his left shoulder and his cane in his right hand, and walks deliberately with a side-to-side rocking motion. This gait may be due to injuries to his feet in the accident which injured his brain resulting in his symptoms, according to Grendalina, who seems to be well-informed. Grendelina was a leader of the Guardians, a group dedicated to protecting management and maintaining control of other residents through the use of bullying. She recalls that the former manager used to check on Fred to make sure his apartment was clean and arrange for help when needed.
“Fred doesn’t belong here”—concern or bullying?
Residents have been concerned about Fred because of his sometimes erratic and threatening behavior. Some avoided him because Fred made them feel uncomfortable: “This is beyond what I can deal with.” His interpersonal skills are distinctive: when he approaches someone, and without any greeting, he will begin to talk, broadcasting his thoughts on the weather or his current concerns. But he does communicate clearly and responds to questions, although he sometimes displays confusion about what is happening to him. He has been reported to defecate and urinate in public areas of the building (although some suspect this is an accusation intended to get rid of Fred), his apartment is full of garbage that he collects on nightly expeditions to a mall, and which he methodically sorts and stores; his room reeks like a sewer, and he is believed to throw garbage onto the lawn. Neither management or any of the service agencies was able to intervene successfully, despite his behavior and his obvious disabilities.
Fred's habit of collecting, sorting, and hoarding garbage have long cried out for supportive intervention and setting limits. It is irrelevant if Fred's behavior is due to an emotional issue or a mental disability due to an accident, or he is just an inconsiderate person. There still remains his responsibility to the community, including his neighbors and the management. It has been clear that his habits create a health hazard for himself as well as his neighbors. The collected garbage creates an awful smell and bedbugs may have spread from his room to other apartments. The community needs to have appropriate limits for all members, and Fred deserves to have the opportunity to conform to the limits, with guidance if necessary.
A system failure?
According to a social worker with extensive experience in such situations, management ought to have rules and procedures covering the expectations for all tenants. When there is an infraction, there should be humane, fair, and equitable standards that are enforced progressively by management to seek correction of the infraction. Failing that, a social service agency should task a suitably trained professional to work together with Fred to negotiate stepwise, short-term goals. He should be encouraged in his progress. If at the end of a reasonable period he cannot or will not correct the problem, he should be guided and assisted to move to a more suitable residence where he can have supervision and support. This ought to be done before eviction proceedings, and it is unfair to Fred for him to be evicted without arranging a safe new situation.
Bleak House management can and does inspect all apartments at least twice a year; agencies, management, staff, and residents have long been aware of Fred's problems. Fred's situation has been brought to the attention of the Health Department and other agencies. It was not doing a service to Fred, other residents, or management for agencies to pretend there was nothing wrong as a defense against remedial intervention, including eviction.
Personal autonomy and social expectations
Despite system failure, little bullying
In Bleak House, it is sometimes difficult to parse if people are being perpetrators of bullying or are expressing concern when they say, for example, that Fred “doesn’t belong here.” Is it concern because they believe that Fred is not getting the care and support he would need to live independently? Or is it bullying, perhaps because the perpetrator’s identity is threatened by living in the same facility as a person like Fred who is an undesirable neighbor, albeit disabled? Are they offended or threatened by Fred and his poor housekeeping? If management and the network of social services are unable to maintain safe and secure living circumstances, and someone like Fred is posing an ongoing concern for other residents, we should not be surprised if the residents began to bully Fred.
Some residents had work experience in various forms of institutional setting, for example, as aides At Danvers State Hospital (a mental hospital). It is my sense that many residents understood that Fred was living with serious disability and could not do any better; so even though they may have been uncomfortable with his behavior or concerned for his well-being; their compassion moderated any impulse to bully. They felt he needed to be in a more supportive facility. One resident, Goodman, told me how he related to Fred; it was bullying. Finally, if there was more bullying, it was not visible to me, and Fred did not share with me until the last few weeks. When a person is excluded from a group in a shunning process, it can be viewed as part of group bullying. Fred was not shunned, but many people avoided or ignored him, imposing a world of loneliness on him.
Is our social safety net up to the job?
Can we assume that the people with significant physical, medical, or cognitive challenges, such as Fred, are getting the best possible and timely support and care? Fred’s story provides insights into several issues.
- Is the landlord and or the elder services agency at fault for not intervening sooner to help Fred be more appropriate in his actions?
- Has anyone with appropriate training been involved to help Fred modify his behavior?
- Has Fred or his sister rejected their offers of help?
- And is Fred capable of adapting to the circumstances of Bleak House, even with support?
- Is there an available alternative better suited to Fred’s needs and capabilities?
- And behind that are the fundamental issues of human rights and legal rights, the obligation of the state to provide services to protect a person from abuse or self-neglect and at the same time enable an individual to both retain autonomy and independence, and avoid institutionalization.
How system failure can lead to bullying
In my research on bullying, I have observed that when management and agencies fail to control social problems in the building, residents take things into their own hands. Thus, bullying can be directed at the person presenting the problem. In fact, some residents have bullied Fred and sought his eviction. Fred told me that as he was leaving the building, someone confronted him and threatened, “I’m going to kill you.” Anthony Goodman, a resident, has spoken harshly to Fred, and the two have fought using their canes. Goodman claims to have gone to court to force management to evict Fred. Others like Sharon had expressed a mixture of hostility and concern when talking about Fred. Sharon had complained to management about Fred, and bullied him. Sharon is unlikely to have acted entirely on her own, she is a key member of the New Guardians led by Joshua Jangler. The New Guardians are self-appointed overseers of behavior and like to determine who may live in Bleak House, and who should be banished. Dislike of Fred may be the only common ground between Goodman and Sharon.
Anthony Goodman claims that he determined to take action, not only against Fred, but also against the management for many failures. He claimed that he put his rent into escrow and his attorney went to Federal court seeking remedies and an investigation. Management failures that he alleged included the lack of building security for weeks because of a broken door buzzer system; the plague of bedbugs; the health dangers posed by Fred’s garbage collection; and claiming that the building is designated as independent living for elderly, while Fred is not competent to live independently in the community. He believes that Fred has been committed for observation in a psychiatric facility as a result of the court action. I have found no confirmation of Goodman’s assertions about a court action. Contrary to Goodman's belief, Bleak House is open to younger people living with disability as well as elderly.
Until finally, Fred’s own health—a fall—led to his absence from the building. Fred was reported to have been seen in a local rehab facility, and returned to his apartment. He continued his nightly forays to collect trash. He complained that during his absence someone removed things from his apartment (there was a major housecleaning by management or social services to remove accumulated trash), including his dentures. Trying to protect Fred by solving his problems and the problems of his neighbors without his participation is not an effective solution and it does not respect Fred.
What are Fred’s rights for support and protection
A social worker comments that in this kind of situation, Fred’s case worker should have been able to assemble a team to help him adapt (and some efforts were made), and failing that should have relocated him before he was evicted. Once a person is evicted, many housing possibilities are closed off.
Protective services for elders
Elderly persons who are not taking care of themselves may choose to work with a caseworker to develop a plan to improve self-care and to seek support services. But they may choose not to accept the help. If they are not competent to consent, then the caseworker may ask a court to appoint a guardian.
How did society and government agencies respond?
We cannot really know what efforts were made to help Fred, we can only observe the outcomes. Perhaps protective services only intervenes when the urgency of the situation trumps the right of autonomy, or possibly they have very scarce resources so only act when eviction is imminent.
My efforts, and those of others, to invoke better care and intervention to help Fred did not lead to any observed changes in his situation. I was one of several who turned to the Riverby Health Department seeking intervention to help Fred and solve the problems, and they created an intra-agency committee, but I am unaware of what, if any impact this might have had.
In mid-August, Fred was again in the housing court facing an eviction proceeding. His lawyer objected to admitting as evidence a photograph taken of Fred’s room by a worker at Bleak House. The judge proposed a visit to inspect the situation. The Court members arrived at Bleak House, including the judge, lawyers, manager, and staff (all from Charitable Landlords) along with the lawyer for Fred. A witness reports there were several other people such as aides, a social worker, and others who are charged with helping Fred all seeking to advocate against Fred’s eviction. Finally, Fred’s lawyer asserts there is no smell.
However, as soon as the judge looked into Fred’s apartment, the facts became clear. The judge was skeptical because of the failure over several months to improve the situation. The protective services worker, who claims to have just come on the case, claims that she needs to have Fred evaluated by doctors.
Evidently, since the earlier eviction hearing in September, and despite the efforts of the Riverby Health Department to coordinate with management and agencies, very little has been done to help Fred, or the interventions have not been effective. Although the apartment had been cleaned during Fred’s recent absence, it had already filled up with trash and garbage. The judge seemed to find the apartment unfit for habitation, and does not go beyond the doorway. Although Fred is happy with his situation, many residents and staff feel he is unable to care for himself and creates a health hazard for others. A couple of days after the court hearing, the protective services agency finally is helping Fred—a couple of workers came in over the weekend and once again cleaned out his apartment, including removing a shopping cart.
As Fred is setting out on his evening expedition to forage for trash, he says, “They threw me out. I guess I will live in a group home. But the management guy [Bill Tinker] squealed on me. He told me it was OK for me to keep the shopping cart, but then he squealed. I think I will appeal.” I asked, “Why do you keep the trash?” Fred said, “I keep the stuff from McDonalds to keep the garbage in. I know I sometimes overdo it. I know they don’t like me to keep the garbage. I told them I would stop, but they didn’t give me enough time.”
A couple of days later, Fred is again leaving on his nightly expedition. As he approaches me, he announces, “They told me I would have to leave here and go into assisted living. I will have to get a lawyer. Paying a lawyer is cheaper than assisted living. And the group home takes all your money. And they are full of drug addicts.“ I asked, “Who told you that you had to go into assisted living?“ Fred replied, “The judge, the court. I will have the lawyer tell them, the elder services did not do the cleaning, they did not clean the dirty floor, and they stole my dentures so I can’t eat right.“
Fred received an eviction notice, but seemed unsure if he would have someplace else to live.
A couple of days before he must leave his apartment, Fred says that the worker from protective services will take him to a motel which he must pay for at $500 a week. He says, “That is a lot of money for an elderly person.” The motel is out on the highway with no public transportation, but he has access to the “Ride,” a transport service. He doesn’t know if, or when, he will have a group home or other suitable residence.
Grendelina is upset that they are placing Fred in a motel on a busy highway because he goes out at night and is bound to be injured. She mentions housing available for less money in a nearby town that would be more suitable. She believes that Fred has a lot of money and could afford a good facility; but then again, he might not be able to afford a suitable situation. Perhaps, I wonder, there may be no publicly supported home for someone like Fred.
Residents react to the eviction
A few people sitting outside on the benches discuss Fred. They recall that his car used to be overflowing with garbage, and that a worker sent to clean his apartment refused to enter. They laugh.
Grendelina comments, “Why did they evict Fred, he doesn’t bother anyone. They should be getting rid of Ruth, she keeps bringing in the bedbugs.”
Another resident wonders why Fred was evicted at this time, he has lived at Bleak House for ten years. Perhaps it was the common fear that Fred’s apartment, full of trash, would harbor bedbugs; it was impossible to use the effective heat treatment to eliminate bedbugs in his apartment because of the garbage. Fred’s sister had been able to arrange for some cleaning in the apartment, but she has been out of the picture since moving to a nursing home. It is not clear, aside from Goodman, who among the residents or staff might have bullied him or pressured management to evict him.
On the day of the eviction, at the end of August, the protective services worker oversees the movers who carry Fred’s belonging to a truck labeled, ‘EVICTIONMOVERS.COM.’ We learn that Fred will have a new place to live, the motel placement is to serve only until the new place would be ready. Fred is resigned to the situation, confused about how long he would be in the motel, and says, “I hope they don’t forget about me and leave me there.” He comments, “I guess a lot of people are glad to see me leave.”