BY JEFF DEENEY “Today I saw…” is a series of nonfiction shorts based on my experiences as a caseworker serving formerly homeless families now living in North and West Philadelphia. I decided not long after starting the job that I was seeing so many fascinating and disturbing things in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that I needed to start cataloging them. I hope this bi-weekly column serves as a record of a side of the city that many Philadelphians don’t come in contact with on a daily basis. I want to capture moments not frequently covered by the local media, which tends to only cover the most fantastically violent or sordid aspects of life there.
Today I saw two women and a man standing in front of a rowhouse on Clearfield Street in West Kensington. The man was standing on the steps, banging on the door while the two women watched. He flipped his cell phone open and looked at it, scrolling through his contacts for a number. Frustrated, he flipped it shut without making a call, then banged on the door again, harder.
This guy had the look of a streetwise entrepreneur; the kind of guy who’s legit but knows how to deal with guys who aren’t. He was a sharp-dressed Latin man in crisp designer jeans, a new leather jacket, pristine Timberlands, slicked black hair and a narrow chinstrap beard, freshly tightened up. The women were black but I mistook them for Puerto Rican; a look-alike mother-daughter pair with skin that looked tropically bronzed. They wore long, wavy weaves, lots of jewelry and brand new French nails. When I got within earshot the daughter called out:
“You know these squatters?” Pointing at the house.
“I don’t know any squatters.”
The man stepped down to the sidewalk and flipped through his phone again.
The daughter, again: “You know people around here?” Her tone was forceful; I was being stopped for questioning.
“I just work up here. I don’t know them. I know they’re trouble. That’s what I heard.”
“They’re squatters. We own this building. We own lots of buildings up here. We got properties on F, D, Indiana, all over.”
“How long have they been there?”
“We just started getting electric bills this past week. Big bills; they owe us crazy money.”
“Probably been running a bunch of space heaters all winter.”
“Who told you they were trouble?”
“Neighbors talk,” I said, waving up the block in that general way that implicates no one. “They say there’s lots of traffic in and out, all hours. Somebody got stomped down, from what I understand. A crew of young boys came by and busted in. I saw the hole they made in the door, punched through it right over the knob and then reached in to undo the lock. The next day there was a dirty sock stuffed in the hole to keep out the cold. Neighbors said they looked like junkies. Maybe somebody didn’t pay their bill.”
“Well, that was our door.” She pointed at the house. “That new door? That ain’t our door. That ain’t our lock. We need them out, today.”
“You call the cops?”
“They said they can’t do nothin’.”
While we were talking, the Latin guy kicked at some plywood that was propped in the cellar window facing the street. It caved in easily, falling back into the house.
“That’s how they got in, right there,” he said.
The mother walked away looking bored, turning the corner, presumably off to wait in the car.
I asked the girl: “Now what?”
“Well, I got him,” she said, pointing to the guy, who was back at the door, banging. “He’s going to bring a truck around, hook up a chain and rip the door off.”
“How do you know they’re still in there?”
“Oh, they’re in there, they was blaring music and the TV when we walked up and now they playin’ hide and seek.”
“Okay. You rip the door off. Then what?”
“Then the cops come. Either they call,” she said, pointing at the house, “or we call. Doesn’t matter, when the cops show up we’ll give them all the paperwork and then we’ll board the house up after we get all the shit out of it. It’s probably all tore up in there.”
I wished them luck with their reclamation project and walked off. Old-head Kensington junkies always talk about shacking up in abandoned houses during the winter. They call them ‘abandominiums,’ or ‘abandos,’ for short. They scour the neighborhood, hoping to find recently vacated houses where the utilities still work, just like this house. This house was a Cadillac, boy, a real sweet find. They had a good three month run in it that took them straight through to spring — even put a new door on the place after the dealer’s crew busted it down.
But if junkies can’t find a fit house to take over for the winter they’ll make do in one with no windows, no heat, no running water. If they have to, they’ll get a five-gallon bucket to shit in, and empty it in the back alley where the rats feast.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.
[Photo by Rachael Shirley]