Late last month, Melissa Akacha, 38, was on a Target run in King of Prussia when she spied a silver Mercedes filled with too much stuff in the parking lot.
“A hoarder,” she thought, eyeing the woman in the driver’s seat.
Akacha, a pharmacist, alerted her friend and neighbor Jennifer Elsier, 44, a medical social worker. On April 25, they decided to approach the car.
“I’m scared,” Akacha said, taking out her phone and preparing to dial 911. “What should we say?”
“Let’s just wing it,” Elsier said, and knocked on the glass. The 2007 ML 350 was out of gas and the driver couldn’t roll down the window. Instead, she opened the door a crack, emitting the smells of closed-in animals.
“Can we talk to you?” Elsier asked.
“Yes,” said the woman, who seemed friendly.
“Are you living in your car?” Elsier asked.
The woman said yes. For about two years.
“We’d like to help you,” Akacha interjected. “But you have to promise to take the help.”
She did. And it probably saved her life.
Death and disease
After building a solid middle-class existence in King of Prussia — college, marriage, home — Lynn Schutzman, 69, saw it all fall apart. She absorbed the untimely death of her husband, a series of crippling illnesses, and financial ruin hastened by medical bills and relatives who she said took advantage of her.
She moved from a 4,000-square-foot house to an apartment, then to her car. Her only companions were a beagle and a Sheltie who chewed up the dashboard and headrests, and whose shared leash was a phone charger. Her monthly income is around $2,000 in Social Security payments.
At night, Schutzman would read romance novels and listen to Phillies games on the radio as she ate supermarket salads and drank water she’d collected from fountains in Valley Forge National Historical Park. “You’re not a bad person,” she’d tell herself before she fell asleep on wrecked seats.
Akacha didn’t think lives unraveled so spectacularly in King of Prussia. And when she learned that like her, Schutzman had been a pharmacist, she was astonished. It turned out they knew several of the same people.
Elsier said that when she realized that Schutzman didn’t appear to be mentally ill or suffering from addiction, like many people who experience homelessness, it shook her.
“All of us see ourselves in Lynn," Elsier said. “It’s a wake-up call to acknowledge this could happen to anyone.”
After the women introduced themselves to Schutzman, they ordered pizza. Akacha and Elsier contacted people who got the car battery charged and filled the Mercedes with gas.
Before departing, Elsier promised Schutzman: “You won’t be sleeping in this car after tonight.”
How did this happen?
“I was born with things,” said Schutzman, whose maiden name was Sterner. “I’ve always been one of the haves.”
She grew up in King of Prussia. As a teenager, she heard that pharmacists make good money, and decided to become one. “Whatever happened, I’d be able to take care of myself,” she recalled thinking.
Schutzman graduated from Upper Merion High School in 1967, then earned a degree from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1972, records show. She got her pharmacist license in 1973, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
At a Pottstown pharmacy, she met a stockboy named Norman Schutzman. They married in 1973, with Lynn converting to Judaism at Norman’s request. He became a pharmacist himself. The couple took trips around the world, their combined $110,000 annual salary enough for vacations as well as a down payment on a $64,000 house in King of Prussia in 1978, Montgomery County property records show. Over the years, they built additions onto the house.
She couldn’t have children, and they decided not to adopt.
The marriage endured. “We adored each other,” she declared. Her wedding ring included Norman’s inscription, “Wear this ring upon your finger as I wear your love upon my soul.”
In 1996, Norman died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. He was 47; they’d been married for 23 years.
“After that," Schutzman said, "I tried to pick up the pieces.”
Soon, she suffered a series of illnesses that altered her life: a tumor that led to early stages of kidney failure; intense leg and foot problems that hinder walking; breast cancer that resulted in a partial mastectomy; a stroke; and a two-month coma caused by an infection.
The medical bills swamped her, even with insurance. It didn’t help that she’d given much of her IRA to two family members for college tuition. Then, relatives moved into her house, promising but failing to help pay the mortgage, afterward racking up bills they skipped out on. Schutzman missed two years of mortgage payments, and the house went for $381,000 in a sheriff’s sale in 2014, according to county records. She said she walked away with $8,000.
Schutzman, who retired in 2009 after battling ill health, rented an East Norriton apartment. But her medical bills forced her to fall behind in the rent and she was evicted in 2017.
“I told myself, I’ll get into the car and seek housing,” she said. Frozen in sore-hearted inertia that fogged her senses, Schutzman took a while to realize she was living in the Mercedes.
Shelters wouldn’t accept the dogs, Chaucer and Chase, her “non-negotiable lifeline.” And she was unable to find subsidized housing, for which there are long wait lists. Schutzman said she was also told her Social Security check was too high to qualify her for help.
She began living in the parking lot of Valley Forge Towers, luxury apartments in her hometown. But the dogs barked a lot. So Schutzman moved to the lot in the business park on Allendale Road, using blankets and her car heater judiciously to survive the winters. After 10 months, someone noticed her and complained. She headed for Target last spring.
This is rare
“She’s a legitimate homeless person who’s fallen upon hard times,” said Lt. Paul Cooper of the Upper Merion police. His officers have spoken with her and given her phone numbers to call for help. “She’s always in good spirits,” Cooper said.
A Target corporate spokesperson in Minneapolis said that “the store was aware she’s been there,” but no one contacted her.
Schutzman would go to the bathroom at Target or a McDonald’s, walk the dogs in parks, sometimes get a room for under $70 at the King of Prussia Motel 6 to take a shower.
“This is rare,” said Blair Dawson, a manager with Your Way Home, the Montgomery County homelessness response organization. “Homelessness doesn’t usually happen with someone well-connected like this.” And after living homeless for a while, such a person could suffer a kind of post-traumatic stress, Dawson added.
“My problem is lack of self-esteem," Schutzman said. "I couldn’t ask for help. I was afraid people would look down on me and say, ‘You had a lot of money. Where did it go?’”
At night she’d whisper, "God, I’m not as strong as you think.”
After Akacha and Elsier discovered Schutzman, Elsier posted a message about her on Nextdoor, a private social network. Word also spread on Facebook.
Within days, professional women used to getting things done formed a committee to help. Local businesses donated hair-cutting and coloring for Schutzman, and grooming for the dogs.
The committee installed Schutzman in the Motel 6, and assigned people have been making her dinners.
The news of Schutzman’s homelessness has filtered out.
“I was stunned,” said Sarah Dellegrotti-DiFebo, pharmacy manager for a CVS in Manayunk. She worked as Schutzman’s intern there between 2004 and 2008.
“Lynn was supportive, caring, very intellectual,” Dellegrotti-DiFebo said. “She came to my graduation and my wedding. She made me a present of old hand-written prescriptions in a frame.”
Dellegrotti-DiFebo said she last saw her two years ago in Schutzman’s apartment. “I knew she’d had cancer and medical bills, and she didn’t know how to pay them,” she said. "She was feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.
“Her living in the car is not only shocking. It gets to the soul of you.” She spent $500 on clothes and delivered them to Schutzman last week.
Not a scam
Akacha and Elsier started a GoFundMe site. At first, people balked, remembering the 2017 GoFundMe scheme in which a homeless Philadelphia man and a New Jersey couple conspired to collect $400,000.
“We assured people it’s legit," Elsier said. "I alone have access to the money.” The committee collected around $14,000 in two weeks.
And on Wednesday, Elsier announced that Schutzman’s new friends had found her a studio apartment for $1,195 a month, dogs allowed. Elsier said Schutzman will pay $800, and the donated funds will cover the rest. She estimates there’ll be enough money for at least two years, while Schutzman waits on a list for subsidized housing.
The other day, with Akacha, Elsier and their children in her Motel 6 room, and the dogs sniffing about, Schutzman beamed.
“These angels, God sent them," she said. "We’re all attached now.
“I cry in bed at night, so happy. In your own community, there are so many good people.”