I let a homeless man move in with me and now I can’t get rid of him

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2008

It’s not like I picked him up off the street. I’ve known him for 20 years. Once he was my boyfriend.


Cary,

I made the mistake of letting a homeless man move in with me. Now I can’t get rid of him.

I’ve known this man for over 20 years. At one time, he was my boyfriend, but we broke up years ago as a result of his excessive drinking. Since I’ve known him, he has been in detox at least five times and rehab twice. He’s been hospitalized twice because of a bleeding stomach and he’s contracted hepatitis C.

He called me one night last December to tell me he was evicted from his apartment. He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance. I begged him not to come here and to stay with his brother. His brother is a recovering alcoholic (has not had a drink in 40 years) and is fed up with him. So he showed up on my doorstep and I made the mistake of letting him in. I told him that he could stay with me under one condition: no drinking.

Although he has been helpful with housework, he has made no financial contributions and has not saved any money to move out. Two weeks ago, I found evidence that he is drinking again. When I confronted him, he denied it. Twice since then I’ve found more evidence. The other day I contacted him while he was working and told him not to come back and to find someplace else to stay. He came home anyway, telling me that he had no place else to go.

Cary, we are having the exact same fights that we had when we lived together years ago. It’s like déjà vu. One night last week I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there was an empty pot on the stove and the flame was on high. Also, I’ve walked in on him while he’s on Craigslist looking for “casual encounters.” At this point I am afraid to go away because I can’t trust him. I’m afraid of coming home to a burning house or getting ripped off by a “casual encounter.” Although he has been told that he is not allowed guests while I’m not home, it is obvious that I can’t trust him.

I just want to go back to my old simple life of living alone with no worries. He has destroyed my carefree lifestyle and invaded my home. I worked hard to get to where I am in life and he is sucking me dry.

When we were living together years ago, I had to get a restraining order to get him out. At that time he was destructive, so I was able to convince a judge that I feared for my life because he was constantly breaking my things, punching holes in the walls, breaking my car windshield, etc., out of anger. He hasn’t shown any signs of violence yet, but I don’t want to have to wait for my home to be trashed before I can do anything about it. I don’t think I could get another one because he has never hurt me physically.

I’ve tried discussing it with him and had no luck. He sees the fact that we don’t get along as being my fault and asks me why I’m doing this to myself (?!). I’ve told him that I want him to start saving money and find a room to rent, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. How can I get rid of him?

Housing the Homeless

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Dear Housing the Homeless,

First, contact your local police and explain that you have a man living in your house against whom you once had a legal restraining order, and you are planning to evict him. Tell them he has been homeless, he has a history of violence and he has a drinking problem. Ask if they provide civil standby for such instances. Ask how you would get a second restraining order if it should be needed. Ask for their advice. They may or may not give you advice. If they advise you to see a lawyer, see a lawyer. You might want to see a lawyer regardless; lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law have experience in similar situations.

This is all by way of covering your bases. You want to have a plan and you want to have physical protection, either from police or from volunteers.

Then, once you have your bases covered, you need to give him clear, unequivocal, concrete instructions, on the order of: “You and all your belongings must be out of this house by 3 p.m. tomorrow. You may not come back.” If you think he may have copied your key, have the locks changed.

I sense that you are in anguish about this. You may be confused about how it happened: You acted in a sensible, compassionate way, and now you are in a mess. You asked him to do certain things and he has not done what you wish. So it may be that, being a kind person, you have not really accepted the hard, brutal facts about him. He may be a kind person in certain ways; you may see much good in him. But if he is drinking alcoholically, he is not capable of acting right. You must accept that. He is not capable of keeping agreements. Bad things will keep happening to him.

He will make it appear that he is the victim of uncaring authorities and heartless circumstances. It sounds like he has been doing this in his conversations with you. For instance, you say, “He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance.” What if we were to recast those sentences like this: “He’s an alcoholic so he’s been working sporadically. He was in detox but detox is temporary.”

Rather than casting him as the victim, let’s stick closer to the observable facts, and see if that lets us get some distance on him. In my experience, alcoholics tend to work sporadically regardless of the economic climate. They work sporadically because they do not have the stamina and energy of nonalcoholic workers. They require more rest, and often are not available five days a week. They also tend to have poor social skills. They alienate fellow workers and, if their coordination is impaired, they can endanger other workers. So there are many reasons why practicing alcoholics work sporadically. As to detox, well, detox is a temporary measure. If a person genuinely wants to recover from alcoholism, after detox he or she can take steps to remain sober. Insurance is not required to stay sober. People who genuinely want to stay sober find a way. Ample free help is available. Insurance is not the problem. Alcoholism is the problem.

So it sounds like he has been able to twist your heartstrings a little by casting himself as a victim. It might be said that in truth he is a victim, but not a victim of other people. He is a victim of alcoholism.

In accepting this difficult truth, you may find it useful to attend some meetings of Al-Anon, where you will meet many other people who have been in relationships with alcoholics, and who have identified the patterns of behavior. You will be able to say, Aha!

Good luck with this. It’s very hard, emotionally, to cut someone out of your life. But if it’s any consolation, I have heard many men say that being cut out of someone’s life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It takes something like that to realize just how hopeless the situation is. Only then will many people seek help with the desperate energy that is required.

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Can I help the handyman who sleeps on a cot?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 20, 2009

This guy in our neighborhood has it rough, but I need to maintain clear boundaries


Dear Cary,

A neighbor of mine needs help. He is effectively homeless, although I think he might have a cot of some sort in another neighbor’s garage. He works as a handyman around the neighborhood, including doing yard work for my family when we need it.

He also sometimes needs money immediately. In the past he has offered to sell us something of little value (which we refused), although recently he asked for $20 and insisted he could pay us back the next day (which he did). A few days ago he and I discussed his coming by to clean out our gutters and we agreed on a price. Last night he stopped by to ask if he could have a $10 advance, which I turned down because I did not have any cash on me.

He is also sometimes late or a no-show (like today) for the appointed time to work. He doesn’t have a phone so I can’t contact him when this happens. I am not a hard-ass when it comes to schedules but I can’t let the dog out when I expect him. I have tried in the past to leave a note for him if he was late and I needed to leave for some reason, but I believe he might be illiterate.

I really want to help him, and that feeling scares me. I believe he has some history of substance abuse and that he might not be in recovery now, in part because until about seven years ago most of my relationships were codependent ones with substance abusers. I recognize the feelings of being pulled in that direction with him.
I try really hard to make my exchanges with him about business. I have established boundaries for our transactions and I try to treat him as I would any contractor, although I sometimes pay him more than his services are worth. But I feel pulled to continue lending him money when he needs it, which I would never do with a contractor. I also would probably terminate a relationship with a contractor who is so often a no-show and so hard to communicate with.

I sometimes think about doing something substantial to get him on the right footing, like giving him a no-interest loan to buy a new lawn mower or even just giving him a small stipend to water our lawn twice a week. I think about looking for an organization that is designed to help him. I also consider the possibility of explaining to him how to manage his money and time better myself. I don’t do any of this because I fear that I’ll end up being an enabler again.

My question is: How do I know the right thing to do? How do I know when it is OK to help someone like him in a way that won’t pull me into the kind of fucked-up involvements I had in the past? Is there anything I can do to help this person beyond just paying him for the jobs he shows up to do?

Thanks,

A Former Enabler

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Dear Former Enabler,

I pay attention to coincidence. The first two letters I received this morning concerned the chaotic lives of others and our perceived obligations to them, how we can help and yet avoid entanglement. So I am going to trust that there is some sense in following this.

Here’s how I see it. There’s this guy in your neighborhood. He’s kind of a handyman. He kind of lives somewhere but not always. He’s not all that dependable but he’s around. He can clean out your gutters and mow your lawn and sometimes he asks for money and sometimes pays it back. He can’t really put a long-term plan together and carry it out. But he’s around. Sometimes you think, wow, ought to do something about that guy. Ought to fix him.

That’s where you get into trouble, right? You think, Oh, if I do this for him, then …
Forget the then part. Just do things and let it go. Transactions with him may be “wavy.” They’re not clean and straight and to the penny. His deal is a wavy thing. Times are approximate. Stuff gets done sort of and sometimes it doesn’t get done or it’s confusing or surprising and sometimes you have to redo it but sometimes he’ll hit his stride and outdo himself and it’s amazing. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even want done but it’s still amazing! Something will come over a guy like that in the course of building a gate and it’ll turn out to be the best gate on the block … except maybe it has this one hinge that’s crooked where his mind wandered. He was thinking — as he does from time to time — about why his life didn’t turn out just a little more together, with some money in the bank, a dependable car, something to look forward to and something to fall back on. He’s still scuffling for a dollar. He’ll get by. But he doesn’t have that comfort thing. He’s got a cot in somebody’s garage … and as he is thinking of these things he mismeasures for the hinge and it goes on crooked because it’s getting late in the day and he’s tired and he doesn’t want to start over.

To what extent are we responsible for others? This guy is not a social experiment, he is a member of your community. Do you give this guy respect, do you regard him not as a problem to be solved but as a member of your community, do you respect the stubbornly incommensurate facts of his existence?

A guy with a cot in somebody’s garage may be sad to some. Maybe somebody will get him a room in a house. Then for a while he’ll be a guy with a room in a house. Then maybe he won’t have the room in a house anymore. Some people will say, “Things didn’t work out,” or “Things changed.” They’ll say he’s a guy with a cot in a garage and he had a room in a house for a while but now he’s just got that cot in the garage but he’ll mow your lawn or do some painting, just be careful he doesn’t let the dogs out because he’s not always paying attention, and if you lend him money he’ll usually pay you back but maybe not always but it’s never that much money … but last week he showed up at the house kind of late at night and maybe he’d been drinking but we couldn’t smell anything but he wanted $10 but I didn’t have $10 so I sent him away and I probably should have, like, told him that he shouldn’t be just dropping in on us at almost 10 o’clock at night asking for money but I felt sorry for him and maybe he was hungry but we didn’t want to ask him in, we were getting ready for bed.

People will say he does “inappropriate things.” How bad is “inappropriate”? He’s a guy with a cot in somebody’s garage.

You are on the right track. You know the territory. You have the tools and the understanding to avoid being sucked into this guy’s life. Just do what you’re doing. Set boundaries and be clear about what you’re willing to lose. Don’t wait around for him longer than you want to. If he shows up late and you’ve left already, well, that’s the way it goes. Consider anything you lend to him a gift. Be ready to let it go, whatever your intentions are for it. If he should lose what you give him or sell it for cash, consider it a gift to him.

Give him things but do not give him things with strings attached. It’s the strings that are the problem. If you are giving with strings attached, then you are letting yourself in for disappointment. Give because you want to give, and are willing to give, and have the money to give.

The man with a cot in somebody’s garage stirs many things in us. You wonder: Does he know he stirs all this stuff up in us? Does he know? Is he manipulating us? To what extent?

I have seen firsthand down South how the privileged and the dispossessed who have lived shoulder to shoulder for so many generations manipulate each other and jockey for position to the very limits of their assigned roles. I have observed firsthand the veiled and coded power struggles between still-privileged semi-rural ex-plantation-owner upper-class whites and still-somewhat-indentured blacks living marginal lives of casually enforced servitude. I have seen this. It is of course gravely rooted in political wrongs not just in the past but in the present, but each case is also a personal story of human beings working out what is acceptable and what can they get away with and what can they bear within the confines of their fate. It is people playing the hand they have been dealt. Each thinks about outsmarting the other. They spend decades outsmarting each other. I have seen this with my own eyes and know that it is not simple. It may look simple from outside but it is not simple if you live there. If you go there and think, I am going to fix this situation by giving this man a no-interest loan to buy a lawn mower and start a stable lawn-care business … woe betide you.

You seem to know this. I sense I am just reinforcing what you already know. So use your instincts, and use what you know, and you will be fine.

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