Aid for the 'least of these'

Aid for the 'least of these'

October 17th, 2010 by Harrison Keely in News

Staff Photo by Harrison Keely/Chattanooga Times Free Press Check Officer may lose the Cleveland, Tenn., home he helped to build if he can't bring it up to county building code.

Staff Photo by Harrison Keely/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Cleveland, Tenn. - The ceilings - falling. The floor - rotted, caving in. The attic - infested. The kitchen - a pile of damp rubble.

Every time Tina Bishop drove by the little house on Craigmiles Street, she assumed it was empty.

But to Check Officer, it's home.

An only child, Officer helped his parents build the house in 1954 when he was 13 years old.

Eleven years later, he took a job as a stock handler at Cook Manufacturing and retired in 2002 when the plant closed. He never married, his parents are deceased, and he lives alone.

For the past three years, his only company has been a passel of opossums that wanders in and out of his house and his neighbor's chickens, which he would feed every day.

"He'd feed them before he feeds himself," Bishop said.

Bishop, a Bradley County building inspector, says that even though Officer, 68, has no family and nowhere to go, time is running out.

"If I don't get his house brought up to code, we're going to have to condemn it and kick him out," Bishop said. "He's lived there his whole life. I truly believe if you take him out of this house, it'll kill him."

Ever since Bishop found Officer, she's made it a personal mission to improve his living conditions.

People don't realize how many similar cases there are in Bradley County, she said.

"I can go out and slap 'condemned' signs on anything; that's the easy part of the job," Bishop said.

"Sure, I can condemn his house, but where is he going to go? Who's going to take him? What am I going to say? 'That's not my problem?' Well, whose problem is it? ... You can't just turn your back on people."

* * *

In April, Officer, thin, with oversized glasses, soft eyes and wispy eyebrows, left the hospital with some bad news.

"They told me I had cancer," he said. "That takes all your concentration away from you."

Days after his surgery for prostate cancer, he was moved to rehabilitation at Life Care Centers of Cleveland for a 20-day stay that turned into 41.

"He didn't necessarily want to go home," said rehabilitation services manager Keith Collins.

"I'm not like you; I don't have family," Officer had said.

"You're part of our family," Collins responded. "You have us now."

Before a Life Care patient is discharged, a therapist visits the home to identify safety issues, Collins said. In Officer's case, Collins made the visit.

He was stunned.

"I've been a therapist for almost 30 years and I've seen some bad situations," Collins said, "but I've never seen anything that even comes close to the environment he was in."

Walls were deteriorating. There was no air conditioning, no heating. The only furniture was a sofa bathed in rainwater.

The bathtub, covered with grime, wouldn't work, and the toilet leaked. Hot water had not filled a pipe in the house since 1983.

Since pipes burst several winters ago, Officer walks to the road to turn the water on, walks back to the house to use the facilities, and returns outside to turn it all off again.

After losing his job, Officer couldn't afford to pay his power bill and went four months without electricity and heat.

"The coldest you'll ever be is when it's freezing in the house and you have to eat cold food," he said.

The same year, rainstorms began punching holes in his roof, flooding his house and painting the walls with mold.

At night, wildlife would enter his house through holes in the roof.

"Possums would come in, spend the night with him, and in daylight they'd all go out the hole in the wall in another room," said Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, who met Officer when they were both being treated at the Life Care Centers of Cleveland.

Rowland called Mount Olive Church of God, which has a program to help locals in need, and David May III, a member of the church council, went to see the situation at the home.

"Even at that stage, it was one of the worst conditions I've ever seen for someone to live in," May said. "I would expect these conditions in a Third World country, not in Cleveland, Tenn."

* * *

On the first Sunday afternoon in June, 12 Life Care therapists spent time off the clock at Officer's house. Shovels in hand, they cleared three feet of wet wallboard off the kitchen floor. They covered the roof with a tarp and donated a new couch, an air conditioner, a bed, a microwave and a refrigerator.

"I didn't want the building [inspection] department involved because the place would be condemned," Collins said.

Therapists threw away piles of damp clutter and clothes.

"It looked like trash, but that was all the warm clothes Check had," Bradley County planner Corey Divel said.

Still, the only cans of food in the kitchen are stacked. The medicine is organized.

"You will never see that his little bed's not made up," Bishop said. "If you can keep dirt neat and clean, he keeps it neat and clean."

As soon as the house was at least livable, Life Care therapists told Officer he could return home.

Every week since, Bishop and Divel have visited Officer, bringing food, clothes and other donations.

Bishop signed Officer up for Meals on Wheels and applied for low-income heating assistance, weatherization, emergency repair and any other aid she could find.

When his clothes need washing, Bishop takes them home to do it, and on the weekends she visits to wash the windows and clean.

A plumber fixed Officer's pipes and ran a new water line to the street. Others donated a door, a TV and a stove. An electrician repaired the home's wiring and donated a water heater.

When the tarp roof began leaking, Bishop's husband provided a second tarp to cover the first.

The fire inspector installed smoke detectors.

"It's pretty unbelievable," Officer said. "They've done a lot of stuff I didn't think they could do."

A local builder pledged to pay for metal roofing and, recently, members of Mount Olive Church agreed to install it.

"We all kind of just adopted him because he doesn't have anybody," Bishop said.

* * *

In mid-August, Bishop helped Officer apply for part of a $500,000 grant from the Bradley County housing rehabilitation program. But when the grant winners were named in September, Officer wasn't among them.

"When I found out that he didn't get that grant money from the county, I was in [my office] squalling," Bishop said.

May said he was shocked by the decision, because it seems impossible that anyone's conditions could be deemed worse than Officer's.

"If he had been a female or had kids, that would have helped him," May said. "The fact that he is a single male worked against him."

After the grant fell through, volunteers from Lee University's service-learning-based Leonard Center visited Officer's house.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Jill Singerman, special projects assistant at the Leonard Center. "We decided to clean as much as we could to make it more livable."

Volunteers scrubbed the bathtub, covered ceilings with anti-mildew paint, swept and mopped the floors. One student crafted curtains for Officer's bathroom window.

* * *

Officer's dad died of emphysema in his bed the day after Christmas in 1986. His mom died in a nursing home three years ago. But the house still is in their name.

Social Security and Supplemental Security Income provide him about $700 a month, an amount Officer said seems smaller as the recession goes on.

"The cost of living is so high, it's pretty hard sometimes," he said. "Everything costs so much. Everything goes up, and the money stays the same."

On the outside, the brick walls of Officer's house serve as a good disguise, Divel said.

"He's not had a lot of social experiences," he said. "His parents didn't let him out a whole lot."

Officer said he's never had a desire to socialize.

"Nearly all the buddies I went to school with are dead now," he said.

Fifty years ago, he played the guitar and performed before hundreds of people.

"You don't know how nerve-wracking that is," Officer said.

Nowadays, however, he plays only for himself, in the tiny house he's called home for 55 years.

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