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September 6, 2006
No home, but space for her clutter

by Dan Barry
TWENTY years ago, a wise and generous Newsday columnist named Dennis Duggan wrote about an impending eviction in this city. A woman of 67, who claimed to have once worked in the Eisenhower White House, had angered the landlord by cluttering her nice Murray Hill apartment with scores of items from her closed thrift shop.

The woman, whose name was Anne, simply did not want to part with her stuff -- what she called her "equity."

In the last hour, though, Anne agreed to stop living in a cluttered maze. Volunteers arrived like the cavalry to transfer her equity to lockers in a storage warehouse. Eviction halted; crisis averted; next story. But stories go on, long after a moment captured on newsprint yellows and turns to landfill stuffing.

Dennis Duggan died earlier this year; he was 78, and had spent a half-century telling the stories of others. As for Anne, well ...Down 10th Avenue she hobbles, in rain-soaked bedroom slippers and a yellow poncho that billows in the wet wind. A gash on her forehead peeks from behind her slick gray bangs. A bandage covers her left wrist, fractured years ago. Cotton gauze spills from the bottom of the sweat pants that cover the sores on her legs.

Hunched so low that her failing eyes remain trained on pavement, she inches south, pulling a cart jammed with white bags. She pauses at 22nd Street, sifts through a garbage can, retrieves something, continues on. At 21st Street, she holds up a paper coffee cup that still retains a sip or two, and says "God bless you" upon receiving a dollar. This is Anne.

She is 87 now, and has been homeless for a dozen years, ever since she was finally evicted from that nice Murray Hill apartment. "It got cluttered again," she explained.

"The Collyer Brothers, they were brought up as a comparison," she added. "I have to agree."

Anne, who says she enlisted in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve during World War II; Anne, who says she spent a year writing correspondence for Ike ("special occasions, special achievements, and maybe big contributors," she says); Anne, who says she worked for many years in public relations; Anne, who doesn't want her last name published because it might embarrass relatives who refuse to help her -- on the streets. She makes her way to Manhattan Mini-Storage, where she rents two lockers to store bags of mail, a foot massage machine, an old can of tuna fish, and piles of mildewed clothing. Seven other lockers in another facility contain the thrift shop "equity" that she admits has been her bane and burden. It costs about $1,000 a month to rent the nine lockers. She says she covers that with her Social Security check and what she makes panhandling. Some days she begs in front of a Food Emporium on the Upper East Side. Other days she begs outside a Duane Reade in Murray Hill.

ON this rainy day she plans to meet William and Julio, two staff members of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit program for the homeless whose president, George McDonald, is an old friend. They have helped her sort through her stuff before, and they will help her again. She seeks order in her life, she says. But order eludes her. When the men arrive, she addresses them with a drill sergeant's assurance. Empty the bags, sort the mail, purchase boxes, label them appropriately.

"Good luck, do your best, and we'll get cracking," she says, before returning to telling a colorful life's story colorfully. For example, the reason she left the Eisenhower White House: "It was dullsville."

Homelessness has not been dull. Anne has been beaten up, among other indignities. For five years she slept in a chair at a drop-in center because she begged well into the night, and the buses to shelters left too early to suit her needs. Now she sleeps at a Park Avenue shelter for older women with some mental illness, panhandles to pay storage fees, and frets about organizing her stuff. This is the way it is sometimes.

An official with the city's Department of Homeless Services said the agency had repeatedly tried to place Anne in permanent housing. But obstacles arise, some rooted in Anne's experiences and inclinations: she doesn't want roommates, or she doesn't want to give up any control of her money, or she doesn't want to leave the neighborhood she knows.

"The problem is the same problem that got her evicted, which is: this stuff," her friend George McDonald says. "To keep that over these 20 years ..."

Still, he says. She's 87.

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