FORT MYERS —
6200 block of St. Andrews Circle North
After inspecting Gail Andrews’ Fort Myers home, where she’d lived with her mother’s skeleton for 14 months, Lee County officials said Monday they will move toward demolition and open contractors’ bids Friday.
Lee County Code Enforcement officials planned to demolish the home on St. Andrews Circle on Sept. 2, but after Andrews’ attorney provided proof he’d found a contractor to renovate, she was given until Monday to get the 50-year-old ranch on St. Andrews Circle North cleaned up.
Monday morning, a code enforcement inspector came to her door and Andrews walked him through two rooms she’d cleaned in the 2,416-square-foot home.
Afterward, 61-year-old Andrews said she’d done the best she could after working every day, loading 68 bags of soggy trash she’d sifted through over the past week as she sorted through piles in her dining room and living room-Florida room, looking for valuables.
“That’s what I’ve been doing hour after hour,” Andrews said. “It’s dirty work, quiet and sad.”
Although some people expressed a desire to help after reading newspaper stories or hearing of her plight on television, she’s worked alone, except for a local church group that helped her tidy her yard.
“It’s a lot to do for one old lady,” she said. “Some things are too heavy for me to move them. But I’m not just going to sit here and cry. I’m going to work hard.”
Lee County Community Development Spokeswoman Joan LaGuardia said the county will open demolition bids Friday and the contractor who submits the winning bid will have 30 days to raze the home. However, LaGuardia said county officials will continue to communicate with Andrews’ attorney, Matthew Toll of Cape Coral.
“In spite of Ms. Andrews’ efforts, unsanitary debris fills the house,” LaGuardia said. “This presents the risk of re-infestation of rodents, roaches and other vermin. The presence of the debris also makes it impossible for contractors to enter and give a reasonable assessment of what must be done to rehab the structure.”
“Although she is represented by an attorney and although offers of assistance have come from contractors, local ministers and a mental health organization, no reasonable option for rehabilitating this structure exists at this time,” she added.
That’s because since the first complaint involving unmowed grass in 2001, LaGuardia said, Andrews has asked for more time to fix each violation, citing injuries and other reasons. Since then, LaGuardia said, the problems have escalated.
“I think we’re at the point where the evidence has been overwhelming,” LaGuardia said, adding that county officials have to balance Andrews’ needs and desires with neighbors’ concerns. “We just have to keep moving forward.”
Andrews’ attorney couldn’t immediately reached for comment, but has said Alco Inc. and contractor Al Steel agreed to do renovations, including a roof and structural work, to bring the home up to code. In a letter to a county attorney earlier this month, Toll threatened to sue if county officials didn’t postpone the Sept. 2 demolition to give Andrews time to clean and fix the home she’d lived in for 36 years.
Andrews, a Lee County teacher for 20 years, has said things piled up in her home after she left her job to care for her ailing parents, her father, Andrew John Andrews, who died in 1999, at 83, and her mother, Gladys, who died at 88 last year.
Andrews has said her mother fell while making her bed one day, wasn’t able to get up and she couldn’t lift her. Andrews said she left her on the floor, propping her up with pillows and giving her a blanket, but she died two days later.
Andrews’ plight came to light after Lee County Sheriff’s deputies conducted a wellness check June 4 after neighbors repeatedly complained about rats and odors, reporting their belief that Andrews’ mother was dead and still inside.
Deputies smelled a foul odor, saw trash and rats and mice running around inside, according to a sheriff’s report, which says Andrews told them her mother was visiting relatives in Connecticut. A week later, deputies obtained a search warrant and found Gladys Andrews’ skeleton inside, wrapped in blankets.
Andrews was held in a psychiatric facility because county officials feared she’d be a danger to herself, but released after the three-day maximum. She said they determined she wasn’t suffering from mental illness.
“Sometimes you make choices and you do it because you’re stressed and afraid,” Andrews said of her decision not to alert anyone to her mother’s death, fearing she’d lose her home. “I feel like I’ve been sent to hell and I can’t get out.”
She also faces possible criminal charges for cashing her mother’s Social Security checks, but won’t talk about that because it’s still under investigation.
Although her home was filled with piles up to 2 feet high, Andrews denies she’s a hoarder. But Gail S. Steketee, a dean and professor at Boston University School of Social Work, called it an extreme case, although not unheard of.
“(It) points to Gail’s knowledge that her home and life were out of control and she could not see a clear way out of her wretched situation,” said Steketee, who wrote “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” a book published this year that details extreme cases.
“Many communities across the country, now more than 75, have formed hoarding task forces to help local service agencies and staff decide how to help people who are in dire straits like these,” she said. “Often, they can help before a home must be condemned by working together to determine what services are needed and helping people get connected to the right people and agencies.”
A national website, ChildrenofHoarders.com, which tracks task forces, shows groups in Massachussetts, Maryland, Texas, Virginia and Washington, but none in Florida. Experts say hoarding is hard to control and poses a serious health and safety threat, including fires, rodents, pests and other unsanitary conditions that cause diseases.
Although LaGuardia has said the county is acting with compassion while considering neighbors’ concerns, Andrews thinks the decision has been made. However, she added: “I’m going to fight it with every ounce of strength I have.”