Broken home

A 71-year-old aunt gets kicked out of her house the hard way

Mar 21, 2012 at 12:00 am

There once was an old woman who lived alone in a house. One winter day, her niece stopped by to take her to church, and when she got inside she found that her aunt's furnace was broken. It was almost as cold inside as it was outside.

"I took her hand to try to help her out of the house, and her hands were just ice-cold," says Dory Bryant, her 56-year-old niece. "So when she got out of the house and I saw her, she was just shivering. I said, 'Oh, no, you cannot go back in there.'"

So she put 71-year-old Betty Brock in her car and drove her back to her apartment to warm her up, get her to a doctor, check out the old house and see about getting the furnace fixed. 

And when some neighbors saw the old woman leave, they tore her house to pieces.

They kicked the front door in and stole the TV and the computer and the fridge. They tore the iron bars off the windows and the iron door off the front, then stole the windows themselves, frames and all. They pulled down the rain gutters, stole all the aluminum siding, walked off with the metal fence that circled the yard. They even took the electric meter from off the back of the house. 

She'd been gone only about a week.

And what they didn't steal, they destroyed. The rooms inside are a blizzard of thrown clothes and books and hoarded mementos and belongings, feet high in the impassable front rooms. Debris spills out of missing windows and scatters throughout the yard. Cans of food from the kitchen lie as far as the sidewalk out front. Some of her clothes are outside in the mud. Even her little red Bible was thrown out to the front porch, its pages bent and wrinkled and fluttering in the wind.

Scrapping is rampant in the city. Abandoned houses and foreclosed homes are routinely invaded and destroyed by thieves, who steal anything that can be traded for a little money. But it takes real brazenness to scrap a house that someone still lives in. 

"It's kind of a spiritually bankrupt mind if they can do stuff like that," says Chris Burns, 41, a family friend. "I mean, I can't even understand that. It's really sad, but I always knew that with that area being so desolate, that it was just a matter of time before something happened to the house. They were just waiting for the opportune time."

A few days after bringing her aunt to her small apartment, Bryant had gone back to the house to grab some things, and that's when she discovered the destruction. Now she had to bring her aunt there to show her she didn't have a home anymore. 

"When she went the first time she sat down — there was a crate like a milk crate — and she just sat in the yard on the side of the house, and just looked at the house, and just started crying," Bryant says.

Brock came to Detroit from Arkansas in 1959, spent most of her life as a seamstress and later as an upholsterer for Chrysler before retiring. She has no kids and never married. "All by myself," she says.

She bought a house on Arizona Street in 1973, by John R and East McNichols, back when it was still a good neighborhood. "Oh, yeah, the neighbors was neighbors," she remembers. "And then they started selling and renting their properties, and anything and everything started coming in."

Almost all her neighbors fled long ago, and their houses disappeared. Whole blocks in the area are completely empty and smothered in grass. Drug dealers sell openly on the street, and prostitutes roam John R in the daytime. Brock was just another elderly person trapped in a bad part of the city, too poor to move away. Now she had no choice.

"There's so much damage 'cause they've taken all the windows out, and it's just too expensive," Bryant says. "There's no way we can redo that, so it's just a wash at this point. We can't do anything with it."

Bryant originally thought her aunt would stay with her a few days at most. Suddenly she had a homeless elderly woman living with her indefinitely, one who struggles to walk, shows signs of dementia and needs constant care. 

To make things worse, Brock's identification, her Social Security card, her health care info, were back at the house. Now they're either stolen or buried in waist-high debris. Without them, Bryant can't get her aunt health care, can't access her bank account and its Social Security checks, can't use her aunt's Bridge Card to get her food, nothing.

"I can't prove she is who she is," Bryant says "I'm just stumped at every level. I can't do a thing."

Aunt Betty really missed her home. So one day, she decided she was simply going back.

Her niece came home from work on a Saturday afternoon, after only a few hours gone, and her aunt wasn't in the apartment. Or the hallways. Or outside.

"This is Dory. I am calling about Aunt Betty," Bryant said frantically into the phone. "She wasn't here when I got back to the apartment and I have no clue where she is, how she got out, or nothing. I'm trying to keep my mind from thinking crazy but I don't know where she would have gone. You know she can't walk. I don't know how far she could've gotten."

Bryant looked around the apartment, and saw that her aunt had taken only her short winter coat, which meant she'd wandered off with just a nightgown underneath. She had no phone and no money. And it was freezing outside.

The police were called. A car was sent out to get a report. And everyone headed in different directions, looking for her.

Hours earlier, it turns out, frail Aunt Betty had unlocked the door, shuffled her way up the stairs from the basement apartment, made her slow way out to the sidewalk, over to the bus stop, onto a bus using a few bucks she'd found in the apartment, and traveled miles away down McNichols, all the way to Oakland on the east side. Her neighborhood. 

She got off the bus and felt her knee buckle, and she collapsed to the pavement. Someone nearby saw her flat on the ground, lifted her up and helped her find her way to the place she said was home — her old house on Arizona Street. 

When police drove by hours later, they found a lost old woman sitting on the porch of her ransacked home, in the cold, but otherwise fine. "Them jokers did a job on that house," she said. "I was too mad to be cold." So the police brought her to the station, and her niece brought her back to the apartment.

That scare made clear to everyone that she can't stay with her niece much longer. Bryant works two jobs and can't possibly devote enough time to her needs. Mercifully, one of Brock's sisters in Arkansas has offered to take her in. The woman has seven kids, and they have their own children, so Brock will never be left alone. But she'll spend her last days far from her home, something inconceivable just weeks ago.

Nobody's been arrested for the scrapping, even though Burns says he saw the home's ornamental iron door in a yard a block away, and the street's drug dealers told him which neighbors scrapped the house. He says he called police once, but went home when nobody responded after an hour. Police say they came out and found no activity, and never got another call, and police spokesman Phillip Cook says they can't do anything if nobody calls. 

It doesn't matter anymore, though. The house is unsalvageable, and Brock will soon be moving away from a city so crazy in parts that people will tear up an old lady's house when she steps out a few days. She's resigned to moving away, and wouldn't go back to her old home even if somehow things could be made normal again. The neighborhood is too far gone, and if your neighbors will destroy your home when you leave for a few days, what else might they do?

"I'd probably want to go back, but I don't know," she says, looking down at the floor as she sits next to the sheet-covered sofa that is her bed for now. "This world we're living in right along in here is a mean world to be in."