‘An 86 year-old man living in the car?’: As veteran battles to stay in condemned home, neighbors say ‘we had to help’
By PATRICK JOHNSON | masslive.com | Published: March 9, 2021
HATFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Neighbors and strangers converged on George W. Emeny’s property Monday morning in a cleanup effort that one volunteer described as an “old fashioned barn raising” to help him move back into his house.
The 86-year-old veteran and retired Springfield Public Schools teacher has been sleeping in his car since January, when the town declared his West Street home “unfit for human habitation.”
“An 86 year-old man living in the car? We had to help,” said Jessica Moody, of Deerfield. “There was no doubt about it.”
Emeny said the assistance from people he did not know was gratifying and life changing.
“I’ve gone from being a lone wolf to being a pack animal,” he said. “It’s nice getting to know people that I’ve only seen from a distance. Now I can see them as real people.”
A housing court judge on Monday gave Emeny 10 days to bring the property up to code. Judge Jonathan Kane scheduled a hearing on March 18 — one day after the town is scheduled to inspect the property — when he will decide whether to let Emeny return to his 320 West St. home.
Kane said if the home passes inspection for the basic necessities for habitation, including heat, electricity and running water, he will consider removing the condemnation order.
Until then, the U.S. Navy veteran will continue camping out in his driveway, in his car with his dog, CC, and cat, Pumpkin.
Moody and her husband, Richard Moody of R. Moody Metal and Fabrication, offered to help after seeing a story about Emeny in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. They reached out to dozens of contractors to see if they would help, too.
Moody said she had never met Emeny before, but came to find out that he knew her grandfather. On Monday, she and other volunteers began clearing years worth of clutter from the home.
She said four dumpsters had been hauled away and three trailers of metal were taken to a recycling center.
“The man is in a tough situation with no family around,” she said. “It’s important that the community comes together to help him.”
John Shuda, a project manager with EnergySource in West Springfield, drove out to offer his services. He said he read about Emeny’s situation — and as a fellow veteran, knew he had to help.
He said he was gratified that so many other people who were in a position to help came out to help.
“It’s like an old-fashioned barn raising,” he said.
Emeny believes the house will be habitable by the next inspection.
“I know it’s doable since I have everyone helping us,” he said.
In addition to the in-person help, an online fundraiser had pulled in just shy of $400 by Monday night.
‘For me, it’s not that bad’
The opinion of the health department notwithstanding, Emeny said he didn’t think his house was uninhabitable — to a point.
“It’s not that bad,” he said. “I wouldn’t bring a child or a family member. But for me, it’s not that bad.”
As part of the town order, Emeny is allowed to enter the property in the daytime but is not allowed to sleep inside at night. His solution has been to bundle up in a sleeping bag in his car.
Monday’s court ruling allows Emeny to stay on the property if he has a camper, instead of sleeping in his car. A camper is on the way, Emeny said.
Thomas A. Mullen, the town attorney for Hatfield, proposed that Emeny be given a six month period where he would be allowed to live in a camper on the property until the house meets code.
“No one wants to put someone out of their house, especially in this cold,” he said during the hearing.
The six-month window would allow Emeny time to “pursue improvements but not live there.”
Lawyer M. Trant Campbell represented Emeny at the hearing. Due to Emeny’s age, Campbell was initially hesitant about Emeny’s ability to make the repairs within six months. But the outpouring of support is changing the equation, he said.
On Monday morning, there were 20 volunteers at the site helping out. There was a dumpster and a portable outhouse. And electricians, plumbers, roofers and insulation workers were offering to bring the building up to code.
Campbell asked the court to rescind the order in light of that work, and allow Emeny to move in immediately.
But Mullen said the town remains “extremely concerned about potentially deadly conditions on the premise,” including a lack of water.
“The home is just unusable without water,” he said. “It’s not an appropriate place for anybody to live, especially during this season of the year.”
Charles Kaniecki, the town’s health agent, said he inspected the home Sunday and found people there clearing items out.
“The problem is we’re looking at a building that needs a lot of rehab,” he said. “To be blunt, this is not going to be a day or two to fix.”
‘The threat of him losing his home is too real’
Inside Emeny’s home is an eclectic mix of appliances and tools, guitars, books and nautical-themed artifacts.
A room just off the main door has an easy chair and a painter’s easel. A number of his oil paintings of sailing ships are on the walls.
“One of my ex-girlfriends used to say I was the worst slob she had ever seen,” he said.
The kitchen sink is overflowing with dishes. One volunteer was cleaning them by hand — a task made more difficult by the absence of running water.
Erik van Geel described Emeny as eccentric and “borderline brilliant,” and said that despite his age he is mentally as sharp as ever. But he has also long struggled with hoarding issues, van Geel said of his friend of more than 20 years.
The home gets cluttered to the point where his friends step in to help, and Emeny says it will not happen again.
But then it does.
Van Geel said the town and the courts getting involved, though, just may have convinced him he needs to change.
“The threat of him losing his home is too real,” he said.
Minus the clutter, the house has its problems — but they are fixable.
The electrical system was overhauled around 10 years ago. The biggest problem is a lack of outlets and Emeny’s overuse of power strips, which raised a red flag during the inspection.
The house has a working electric furnace. But because the insulation is poor, it is prohibitively expensive for Emeny to turn it on in the winter.
There is a wood stove just off the kitchen, but there was too much stuff stacked around it.
So minus a heat source, Emeny would shut off the water in the winter to keep the pipes from freezing. He uses restaurant restrooms, and showers at the YMCA.
The biggest problem Emeny has may be the property’s visibility, van Geel believes. The triangle shaped lot is near the center of town on the main drag of Route 10. There was no hiding it when his accumulation of stuff spilled out onto a greater and greater portion of his property.
“If he lived in the woods, no one would have bothered him,” van Geel said.
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