They deliver in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night. But on this Camden street, fleas have chased away the mail carriers.
A flea infestation in Camden got so bad that even postal workers will not go down the block
For weeks, residents of one Camden street have had their mail delivered not to their homes, but to boxes at the end of the street. The reason? Fleas.
A severe flea infestation in the 1300 block of Browning Street stopped letter carriers in their tracks and led the post office to make the unusual decision to suspend door-to-door mail delivery in the city's blighted Whitman Park neighborhood.
Residents said they complained for months to city officials about the house at 1303 Browning St., where they said several pit bulls were abandoned, a pipe was leaking, and bugs were out of control. They sought help from the county and beyond. One neighbor, Karen Williams, said she went as far as calling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to no avail.
In mid June, animal control officers, responding to neighbors' complaints about the dogs, went to the house to investigate. As the officers approached the two-story gray stone rowhouse, they found flies swarming, according to a June 20 incident report. Neighbors said the dogs had been whimpering because they had no food or water, nor anyone to care for them. The animal welfare officers said they found a dead dog and five others with severe wounds and malnutrition in rooms covered with urine and feces — and swarming fleas. The dogs were taken to Blackwood Animal Hospital for evaluation and treatment.
"They were nothing but bones," said Robert Shaffer, who lives across the street and saw two adult dogs and some pups removed from the house. Shaffer and other neighbors said they repeatedly complained to city officials, who initially failed to address the flea infestation — a health concern that grew so serious that the government suspended door-to-door mail delivery.
In late June, the city hired an exterminator to treat the property.
"I closed that day because of the fleas," said Thomas Valdez, who owns the food mart next to the abandoned rowhouse. In addition to the fleas, he said, water leaking from the building damaged his store. Large portions of his wall had to be taken down to the lath and plaster and replaced. Basement joists are growing mold and rotting. The fleas only made things worse, said Valdez and his neighbors.
"They have to get inside that house and clean it and close it," he said.
This week, city officials moved to do just that. On Thursday, after the Inquirer and Daily News began asking questions about the condition of the property, an official from the city Department of Public Works arrived on the block for an inspection, and on Friday morning, the city boarded up the house.
"The city is taking responsibility for the property," said Camden city spokesman Vincent Basara.
According to the animal control reports, officers cited Russell Walker, who neighbors said lived in the house, for failing to care for the dogs, failing to properly license and spay or neuter them, and failing to maintain the property in a sanitary manner. Efforts to reach Walker were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the flea problem lingered, neighbors said. It got so bad that the post office suspended door-to-door mail delivery July 11.
Ray Daiutolo Sr., a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said that decision was not made lightly, but was necessary because of health concerns. A former carrier who has spent 32 years with the Postal Service, Daiutolo said this was the first time he could recall a flea infestation so serious that it interfered with mail delivery. Locked boxes were placed at the end of the block so residents could get their mail. Home delivery will resume, he said, when Camden officials send a letter advising that the fleas are gone.
Neighbors are growing weary of the wait.
"The city is taking its sweet old time," Shaffer said in an interview earlier this week as he stood with his neighbors near the abandoned rowhouse. A lifelong Camden resident, Shaffer said he has talked to local officials "for years" about the house and other blighted properties on the block.
For decades, the house has been owned by Charles Thomas, who bought it in 1978 for $13,500, property records show. In time, he and his wife, Wanda, now in their 90s, fell behind on their mortgage, records show. Efforts to reach the couple were unsuccessful.
In 2002, delinquent utility bills forced a tax sale, and Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC paid $1,100 to settle those bills and become the holder of the property. Ocwen, in turn, allowed bills to go unpaid, and at another tax sale, in 2016, US Bank & Sterling National replaced Ocwen as holder of the property, records show. Sterling officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Thomases, meanwhile, moved out years ago. For a time, neighbors said, a woman lived there with her grown children, but she fell ill and moved out. Those who stayed behind bred dogs and destroyed the property, neighbors said.
Inside the trash-strewn house on a recent day, vintage furniture and artwork stood as a reminder of what the house once was.
Basara said the city had been in touch with the bank about the condition of the house and had sent a letter advising that the property had to be cleaned and boarded up.
The inside of 1303 Browning St. remains littered with old furniture and garbage.
Generally, Basara said, owners have 30 days to clean and secure a property once it is cited for a code violation. In this case, Basara said, he was unsure what steps the city took to try to force the bank to act before the city boarded up the house this week.
The flea-infested house is not the only eyesore on the street. At least seven other properties sit abandoned and boarded up on that block, some by the city's Department of Public Works. An abandoned sedan remains curbside across from 1303 Browning, its tires flat. Some of the properties have been boarded up so long that weeds have grown into trees and the houses are barely visible from the street.
Neighbors have grown accustomed to the surroundings, but the lack of mail delivery has rankled them. Williams said she would like to see delivery restored. The block is home to some frail and elderly residents who either can't collect their own mail, or have a difficult time making their way to the boxes at the end of the street, she said. And for others, it is an inconvenience.
"Some people work and don't get home until after dark," Williams said. "They should not have to go down the street at night. It's not safe."