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Thursday, March 10, 2005 05:15 pm

Razing the roof

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Nancy says that she avoids local shelters because “they’re too dangerous.”
PHOTO BY TODD SPIVAK

Homeless for seven years, Nancy has spent much of this winter huddled under blankets on the front porch of a derelict building in downtown Springfield.

The semienclosed wooden porch offers some shelter from the wind and snow, she says. And it’s conveniently located across the street from St. John’s Breadline, where she takes two meals a day.

Nancy is often seen rummaging on the downtown streets for aluminum cans, which she cashes in for 52 cents a pound. She spends most of her earnings on hot coffee and cheap cigarettes.

“My only addictions,” she says, with some pride.

But Nancy, who keeps all of her possessions packed in a half-dozen grocery carts, is searching for new digs.

Since Friday, a bulldozer has sat outside the abandoned brick buildings at 437 and 503-505 N. Fifth St., which are said to house as many as two dozen homeless people nightly.

The buildings have long posed problems for police, who have received nearly 20 complaints in the last 12 months ranging from burglaries and thefts to fires, according to Sgt. Kevin Keen, a Springfield Police Department spokesman.

In November, a few days before Thanksgiving, a homeless man went into cardiac arrest while sleeping in his usual spot between the two buildings. George Oppegard, a middle-aged man from the East Coast, later died at St. John’s Hospital.

Dr. Robert Posegate, a local ophthalmologist who has owned the properties since 1998, says he stopped renting out apartments last spring after tenants complained of vandals, trespassers, and intimidation by vagrants.

Since then, the buildings have served as a temporary shelter for some of the city’s neediest citizens.

Getting in is a cinch. Not only are many of the windows broken, but the front doors are also left unlocked.

Inside, the scene is that of a party spun out of control, with mounds of cigarette butts and ashes piled high on the floors, hundreds of empty malt-liquor bottles scattered throughout, and bare mattresses strewn across rooms on the upper floors.

Posegate says he wants to level the buildings immediately. He may then sell the properties or pave them for use as parking lots.

“They’re an invitation to homeless people, and I need to get rid of them,” says Posegate. “I hope to have the buildings down this month.”

But that seems unlikely. Jones-Blythe Construction Co., which was contracted to demolish the structures, has only recently completed asbestos removal. The company has not applied for demolition permits, according to a spokesman for the city’s zoning department.

Still, many of the buildings’ squatters have been turning in early and expect to be awakened by the wrecking ball any day.

Nancy, who refuses to stay at shelters because “they’re too dangerous,” has already begun to scope out some new places to crash at night.

“It just seems like we’re getting pushed further out of the city,” she says.

“I don’t know where I’ll go to next.”

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