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BY AJ TRAGER
DETROIT – The squirrels that live on Puritan Street in Detroit constantly throw acorns on the roof of a early 20th century white farm home that is filled with early and late blooming plants, two dogs, one cat and a pair of humans who are madly in love. The sound of the falling acorns is similar to hard knocks on stainless steel and is quite startling, but for James and Teddy Washington it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the constant turmoil they faced while living at their previous residence on Prevost Street in Detroit’s west side, which Between The Lines covered in April.
“We have neighbors in the area who are fighting the same fight that we are, if not more. This area is conducive to who we are as individuals and as a couple and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Teddy said.
The old farm house sits on a little over two acres of land in an area of Brightmoor that doesn’t hold up to the neighborhood’s stereotype of being a city dump, or a crime scene. The house was hand built in 1920 by a steelworker and his family and took about 12 years to finish. Materials for the home were sourced with lumber taken directly from the neighborhood and the radiators, railings, stairs and the archways were all custom built for the home by the builder.
Their closest neighbor mostly keeps to himself, and there is a neighborhood watch. They don’t have to worry about not getting their mail and are working with the bank to purchase the home. It’s their new oasis.
“We are happier. We are happier with each other than we are with anything else and that’s what makes the difference,” James said.
Divorce was on the horizon, Teddy explained to BTL: “Living here is like night and day.” The stress from living in their previous home was causing more than just financial turmoil and was leaking over into their relationship.
Teddy and James moved into their new home two weeks ago after their situation on Prevost Street turned into a nightmare. Through the efforts of Teddy and James, dozens of truckloads of trash containing wheels, food, trash, mail and discarded home materials were removed from that area. While that measure improved the look of the street, their former neighborhood was not inviting. James and Teddy were constantly under threat from not only their neighbors but their landlord who would often use gay slurs and threaten them with physical violence.
To make matters worse, the mail carrier stopped delivering their mail, forcing them to pick it up at the post office. Many of James’ important medical records and payment documents would be “lost and not found.”
Several lawsuits have been filed against both the mail carrier who refused to deliver and their former landlord who tried to repossess the home, evict James and Teddy and failed to maintain upkeep on the house — a negligence that landed James in the hospital after falling through the stairs leading to the second level.
“The pressure is gone. I can sleep here,” James said. “We don’t have the stress of a landlord who is acting illegal that we have to fight. I can concentrate on going to doctors now and getting better in a safe home without going down to court to fight for a home that isn’t worth it.”
James has been fighting cancer. He was diagnosed with esophageal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the spring of 2014 and has had multiple surgeries in attempts to quench the spread of the cancer cells. The couple has been working hard to make ends meet ever since the hospital bills started piling up. Choice Care Services Inc. employs Teddy to provide James with his hospice care for his various recoveries from cancer treatments and surgeries.
“This is his hospice care which is a blessing. Most people who go into hospice care have to go into some crazy nursing home. But organizations such as the Detroit Area On Aging allow people who are not physically, mentally and emotionally able to be on their own because of hardships or different things in life to be able to be at home in a safe and secure place that’s also familiar. And we hope that many more people will make that available or make that sacrifice,” Teddy said.
Many Detroit agencies have come together to provide assistance for James and Teddy. The Detroit Area On Aging helped them with their move and Mom’s Meals, a national provider of fresh-made meals for patients recuperating at home or managing a chronic disease, provides them 14 meals every two weeks.
“It’s about community. When you’re down and can’t do much, hopefully other people that you have come across, met and have left impressions on can come and pick up the slack for you. And when they’re down, hopefully they’ve left a big enough impression on you to where you can do the same. And it’s hard because you don’t have that a lot anymore,” Teddy explained.
John and Lisa Palmerville, Detroit residents committed to cleaning up the blight and illegal dumping, connected Teddy and James with the former owners of the Puritan home who had let the property enter foreclosure. James and Teddy have started paying taxes and the home bills with the goal of keeping the house from being destroyed, working with the mortgage company to hopefully sign a quick sale of around $20,000, and obtaining the deed.
“To sit here and be able to absorb this and all that it offers — it’s quite surreal,” Teddy said. “We are not squatters; we’re appointed preservers. We are preserving the history that is here and accentuating it to make it that much better. For me, the definition of a squatter is someone who sees an opportunity or property and says, ‘Wow, I’m going to take this over.’ But when you go about things the right way, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”
Unfortunately their struggles continue despite having moved to a new location away from physical danger. James’ disability insurance was recently terminated as a result of the state of Michigan recognizing their 2014 marriage. He collected under his father as a disabled child due to traumatic abuse that resulted in both of his legs having been broken. All of his treatments at Beaumont have immediately stopped and they are seeking legal counsel.