Monday, June 22, 2009

Iowa disabled woman lives in storage unit

From the Des Moines Register:

CARROLL, Iowa - Police in this central Iowa town are concerned about a 75-year-old, disabled former schoolteacher who has been living in a rented storage garage.

Carroll Police Chief Jeff Caylor said that over the past two weeks his officers have twice called state and county social workers to express concern about the living arrangements of the woman known throughout town as Maxine (pictured).

Social workers from the Department of Human Services interviewed Maxine at the storage facility, but she has continued to live there, Caylor said.

Maxine told The Des Moines Register that the Department of Human Services has approved of her living in the storage shed with the understanding that it's temporary.

DHS spokesman Roger Munns declined to comment on the specifics of the case or the agency's handling of the matter. He said "a long-term stay" in a storage facility would not be appropriate.

The Register is withholding Maxine's last name and the location of the storage unit where she lives because of her vulnerability to exploitation and other forms of abuse.

On Thursday, Maxine was still living in the storage locker. On Friday, the situation was less clear. Maxine said she had just moved out, but police officials - who have been checking on her at the storage facility - said social workers hadn't informed them of any changes in her living arrangements.

Maxine spoke to a Register reporter Thursday morning while seated on a sagging, striped couch in the back of the storage unit, surrounded by buzzing flies and stacks of old furniture. The smell inside the shed - of excrement and what appeared to be a container of sour milk - was overpowering.

"I just stay here for a while during the day and I sleep here at night," she said. "It gets too hot in here during the day to be in here for very long. ... This is the davenport I used to sleep on in my efficiency apartment. And so when I go to sleep on it, I fall asleep right away.

"You know, I've been out to a motel, but that was a strange bed so I didn't get very good rest out there. DHS has approved all of this. They know I'm getting a good night's rest here."

Police and mental health advocates say it's not unusual for some people to choose living arrangements that others would find intolerable. Often, the question facing social workers in such situations is whether the individuals are independent and thus able to make good decisions on their own about their well-being.

In Maxine's case, the question may be more specific: Is an elderly woman's decision to live in a metal storage shed with no electricity, no ventilation and no plumbing cause for a finding that she's a dependent adult in need of services?

So far, the Department of Human Services seems to have found her living arrangements acceptable, at least in the short term. But Munns said some the department's decisions on whether an adult is dependent "are close calls, and they can be revisited on short notice."

"We've never faced anything quite like this before," said Caylor. "We have, for example, people living with a lot of cats, people living in situations that you or I might consider unlivable. But this is different."

Sylvia Piper of Iowa Protection and Advocacy said Maxine's decision to live in a storage shed poses a threat to her safety. She said the combination of hot weather, the woman's disabilities, the lack of sanitary facilities and the potential for her to be trapped inside call for immediate action.

"Certainly we want people to be independent and making choices to their liking," she said. "But if those choices are such that the person could die as a result, that's not a reasonable choice. And this rises to that level."

Caylor said Maxine has told his officers that she has difficulty raising and lowering the overhead-style garage door on the shed to get in and out. With outdoor temperatures now reaching the 90s, there's a concern that if she were to fall or injure herself she would find herself unable to get out and suffer hyperthermia.

Piper said that in February state officials were able to immediately evacuate 21 mentally retarded men from an Atalissa bunkhouse when the fire marshal deemed it unsafe. "And then they were able to place those men in a new home within three days," she said. "Here we're dealing with one woman. They should be able to resolve this in a matter of hours."

Caylor said: "I know DHS has been down there and talked to her at the shed. One of our officers spoke to her three or four nights ago about this trouble she was having lifting the door up and down and so we contacted DHS again."

Caylor said the police department paid for at least one night's lodging for Maxine at a local motel, but she didn't want to stay.

"This is obviously not a law enforcement issue, but at the same time we want to make sure she's safe," he said. "Our guys pretty much talk to her several times per day."

"They have been checking on me," Maxine said. "And I thank them very much for that."

Maxine said she has been looking for an apartment but hasn't found one with the ground-floor access she needs because of her physical disabilities. She explained that she has trouble walking even a few feet, so to get around she uses a walker and an electric scooter that she recharges at local businesses. She's also hard of hearing and her eyesight appears to be failing.

Maxine said she grew up in Iowa and then spent years working as schoolteacher in Ohio. She moved back to Iowa, she said, when her parents grew too old to care for themselves.

People in Carroll know Maxine as a familiar sight along U.S. Highway 30 where she can often be seen riding her scooter to the library. After being evicted from her apartment on short notice a few weeks ago, she rented a few storage lockers from a company run by Charles Thatcher of Breda, Ia., and Lynn Heuton of Carroll.

Heuton said he didn't know the woman was living in the shed until the police notified him several days ago.

"It's just a storage shed," Heuton said. "I don't know really what we're going to do about this."