Right Down the Street – All This Time

Ever since the neighborhood homeless guy moved back to Illinois, I didn’t think I knew a really poor person. Until last Sunday. But on that day I discovered that a woman I know, three houses away from me, is poor as a church mouse. My neighbor Laura came over that day to say that she was worried about Adeline who lives in the blue house down the street. Laura is a botanist who works from home and likes to keep track of what is going on in the neighborhood from her desk. She considers herself a detective, one who ferrets out hidden broke people so she can do something about it. She has had some interesting adventures this way.

Our neighborhood, built in the 1920s, is full of mostly charming arts and crafts bungalows. Some have been added on to through the years and look ungainly now. Some have been expanded really nicely or are beautifully kept up. The people who live here come from families that originated all over the world. This place is diverse in every way and I like living here. 

Laura’s detective methods are simple. She pays attention to the way the house is kept up, especially the roof; looks for nearly hidden signs of objects crammed into the place that might indicate hoarding – because hoarding to Laura indicates a life that is out of control. And she notices when someone’s lights stop coming on at night. Around here, lots of people are living in the house they were born or raised in. Some of them, quietly, have not been able to pay their bills or take care of their houses for some time now. This isn’t real obvious for a wile, especially if you don’t want to see it. And I have barely noticed some things that really startle Laura.

I think more people than we realize are having a hard time of it today. People who lost money in the big recession a few years ago, people whose jobs or industries have disappeared, people who got “right sized” out of their jobs and couldn’t find another, or people who aren’t getting pensions for jobs they held for years, people who have been sick for a long time. And that often means the person in the house is living a hard life because, as Billie Holliday sang once upon a time, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”  

It seems to me that a lot of the people who are going through this are single elderly women. I don’t see a lot of relatives stopping by; don’t see many old friends either. And Laura’s detective work suggests that knowing who actually owns a house is not always clear, so a house is not necessarily an asset a person can convert to cash. People may not have changed the paperwork, sometimes since their grandparents owned the place. Some don’t know how to apply for their pension or can’t find out if they are owed anything. Keeping up with big bureaucracies is not easy nor is it for the faint of heart. Adeline’s house, Laura tells me, belongs to a niece who expects to inherit the place.

At any rate, since Adeline doesn’t drive any more, can hardly see and seldom goes out, she doesn’t often buy groceries, even when she can afford it. So Laura made a date with her for Sunday morning at ten to take Adeline to Trader Joe’s, but when she stopped by, no Adeline was to be found. Her door was ajar, her purse was hung over the inside door knob and no matter how loudly or persistently Laura knocked, Adeline didn’t come to the door. Should she call 911, she wondered when she stopped by our house to talk? Might she be sick or injured, lying on the floor in a state of emergency? Was she embarrassed or in a bad mood? Or was she out, having forgotten the shopping date, was she just fine?

Laura worried this question for more than an hour and a half, but when another banging on the door produced no response, she did what she thought was best. And within twenty minutes three police cars showed up. They knocked, checked around the house (this is called a “welfare check”), knocked again then entered. Wearing rubber gloves when they went in, they came out wearing masks over their mouths as well, covered in dust and cobwebs. It reminded me of the house of Dickens’ memorable Miss Havisham whom I have never been able to get out of my mind. “We are relatively sure she is not in there”, they told us. “The place is jammed with old furniture and other things, she is a classic hoarder, and so we can’t be sure. One thing is certain; that house cannot be lived in safely. She is going to have to leave.”

Whatever happens now, Adeline, who came home a few hours later, will never be the same. What will she do, where will she go, will she feel betrayed by her neighbors? Will she be miserable? Perhaps she will feel relieved. She will definitely be frightened, she will be embarrassed, she will be angry. We know that for sure.  

A bunch of us milled outside the house for a while and agreed that if Adeline and the City and her niece allow it we will clean out her house, paint it up, see if we can get government help pay her electricity bill, get her enough food to eat. But I just don’t know that it will happen. Once things are this broken, it is hard to put them together again. 

I wonder how many Adelines are living amongst us needing help. And I wonder what we can do about it. As the public conversation turns more harsh and unforgiving, as our politics seems to be crazy and cruel, we have a lot to figure out about how we each want to live our lives. Here is an old question we might re-consider: are we our brothers & sisters keepers and what does that mean?


Tony Smith

October 2016







  1. It’s the shame that allows it to go on: shame and shaming. During the depression people helped each other: it was clear that no one was to blame. Now we’re ridden by the illusion that there is personal failure at the root.

    I believe that a “not 100%” mental situation often has it’s origins in shame and fear. When one has no where to go, overwhelm is a close companion.

    • Tony Smith says:

      Lynetta, I agree with you about the shame a person is invited to feel about things of this sort and I am outraged by it. We go to great lengths to honor and praise the acquisition of objects and people will lead dispiriting lives in order to surround themselves with them. These are not humane values and they are destructive. Adelaide is all of us.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Heartbreaking — and yes, more common and closer than we’d imagine. Difficult choices and conflicting values… judging quality of life for another person is a monumental, humbling responsibility. Your neighbor’s situation represents our worst fears, and implicates American society. Please let me know what transpires and how I might help.

    • Tony Smith says:

      Yes, I believe we are all implicated in this sort of thing. And our social policies are about real people. I also agree that we can’t know about another person’s perception about the quality of their life – especially when we remain entrapped in the status-achievement fantasies we usually entertain. I will make reports.

  3. George Grenley says:

    Good observations, Tony. There’s a lot of ‘genteel’ poverty among us/ As you say, it’s not often very visible. It’s also complicated to know how to help. The pride of the person is a factor.

    My great-aunt, Irene Grenley, died this way. There’s no easy fix because there is a certain amount of mental health issue involved. I’m not saying these people are crazy, but they are not quite 100% either.

    In Adeline’s case, I’d be pro-active. Box her stuff up at store it among the neighbors. Take up a collection for the electric bill. Do what needs to be done, and THEN talk to Adeline about it. I’ve got a small truck and tools if you need me to help.

    • Tony Smith says:

      Yes, I believe we are all implicated in this sort of thing. And our social policies are about real people. I also agree that we can’t know about another person’s perception about the quality of their life – especially when we remain entrapped in the status-achievement fantasies we usually entertain. I will make reports.

      George – I will put you in this reply because my computer insists. I appreciate your caring and your offer to help. Nor do I misunderstand your comment about the mental health issues. If the person wasn’t having emotional issues before the big slide began, they probably will once it has progressed.

  4. Sad but often true situation. Thanks for trying to do something about it.

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