The widow is sitting at a table telling me her story in a house that is hers, but a house that she does not want. There's a nearby house that is hers, where she wants to spend her remaining years, but it was trashed by squatters.
It's kind of amazing. A house you bought and paid for — you have a deed — gets taken over by people who live on a mountain of gall.
Gladys Lackey is 70, and she never imagined she'd be living in a cluttered Germantown rowhouse that she bought for $5,000 at sheriff's sale 20 years ago as an investment. It is next door to the rowhouse she called home with her longtime fiancé, Clarence Milo Queen. They were going to renovate the house that Gladys bought, and then sell it.
It was not her only purchase. In 2011, she paid $25,000 for a nearby two-story twin that was to be the final residence for herself and Clarence.
That was the plan. The cancer that struck down the man she calls "Mr. Queen" was not part of the plan. With Mr. Queen gone, Gladys was forced from their home and into the property next door. Because Gladys is fearful, I am not revealing any addresses nor showing her face.
She is not entirely alone. Her daughter, Charlene, 50, is a corrections officer, "but I try to not drag her into my problems," says Gladys. Her first husband deserted her at the child's birth, she says, and she supported herself and Charlene by her job at Germantown Hospital, where she worked in several blue-collar departments.
Gladys "spent the last of my savings to lay Mr. Queen away," and would have liked to have moved into the twin, but it was in disrepair, which was one reason she never thought about getting a paying tenant. Instead, she got nonpaying tenants.
She found out about that last July, although they had been there since March, and she reported it to the police. She was told that the sheriff handles squatters.
Gladys' plight came to my attention via an op-ed piece this week by Councilman David Oh, which briefly mentioned the widow. Reluctant at first, Gladys decided to tell her story in the hope it would help others. It took her from July until December to get the squatters evicted. Squatters can be harder to remove than ticks.
Oh has had squatters in his sights since at least November, when a bill he proposed failed to get out of committee. He came back with a new one this session, and it has seven cosponsors. In testimony in November, victims talked about having fought squatters for years.
Say, isn't squatting just another term for trespassing?
Oh says yes, but sometimes squatters claim to have a lease agreement that is verbal, or they produce fake papers that can be hard to disprove on the spot. Oh's new bill creates an expedited process for the landlord to have a squatter ejected.
As for Gladys, she still can't move into her forever home because, she says, the squatters stripped it bare. The cops can't do anything, she was told, because there were no witnesses. She is borrowing money for the renovations. Hard money following hard luck.
"I have worked hard all my life and these people wanted to take what's mine, what I worked so hard for. I never thought this would happen to me," Gladys says. "Why would you want to go after me?"
The question hangs in the air of her Germantown parlor.