Piles of papers, stacks of folded bags and empty food containers line all but about six square feet of the front room of Maurice Hellmuth's condemned and crumbling century-old house across from the Addison Road Metro station in Prince George's County.
The 72-year-old recluse said he wants to be left alone to sift through the possessions of a lifetime before he moves, at his own pace, from the house where he was born.
But more than two months after county officials condemned the decaying house, time and the county government's patience have run out for Hellmuth. County officials and his friends fear that Hellmuth's uncertain health and eccentric living habits -- such as heating food with crackling cans of sterno amid floor-to-ceiling piles of debris -- will lead to tragedy.
Sue F. Ward, director of the county Department of Services and Programs for the Aging, said, "The concern about the accident waiting to happen is a heavy burden -- we don't want to be in the position of making decisions for people unless the court wants us to -- that's one of our protections in this country even though it's heartbreaking sometimes."
"In many instances the person is willing to move into other types of housing -- the difficulty with Mr. Hellmuth is he doesn't want any of the alternatives."
Hellmuth's dilemma is a variation on the national problem of growing old alone that is being faced by an increasing population of elderly at a time when government resources are being cut back. The elderly population is expected to double by the year 2025 and 235,000 new housing units are needed each year to keep pace with the demand, according to Deborah Cloud, a representative for the American Association of Homes for the Aging. Moreover, in 1985, 3.5 million elderly Americans had annual incomes of $5,000 or less, yet only one in seven of those received government housing assistance.
Hellmuth's existence is now focused on his two-story, wooden Victorian house set on a 10-acre farm that his parents bought in 1907 in the countryside, which is now an eyesore on a half-acre overgrown lot along a bustling corridor of development. The house was condemned as "unsafe and a hazard to the health, safety and welfare" of the resident on March 13. At Hellmuth's request, County Council member Hilda Pemberton asked code enforcement authorities not to enforce a 24-hour eviction rule so that Hellmuth could have 60 days to move in an orderly manner. County officials have talked to him about moving into a local nursing home or senior citizens home.
"I'd like to find a place in the country with a room and board arrangement where I can get a meal, walk around if I am able and lie down when I want to," Hellmuth said. "I'm going to no nursing home, I'm going to no senior citizens apartments."
"I want to get out of here but I want to do it in my own time and with dignity," Hellmuth said, adding that he'd like to sell the property for about $65,000. If he does leave, he will still own the property but may have to reimburse the county for the cost of demolishing the house.
Yesterday, Pemberton said Hellmuth's time was up. "A room in the country? I'm not sure we have that at our disposal to give to Mr. Hellmuth," Pemberton said.
Thick underbrush and a tangle of vines edge Addison Road in graphic contrast to the neatly mowed lawns of neighbors on either side of Hellmuth's property. The house has no plumbing or electricity. The decaying front porch is cluttered with empty tin cans, rusted signs and empty water jugs. All but one window is darkened from the inside with neat stacks of Hellmuth's memorabilia. Foul odors seep through a cracked front door.
Hellmuth said he is plagued by "heart spells," narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder) and arthritis, yet he has refused to go to a doctor for the past 15 years.
Hellmuth talked openly about the troubles in his life. An unhappy romance caused a "nervous collapse" at 19, he said. In 1941, Hellmuth said he went to work for the government in various wartime agencies, but a second breakdown at 29 forced him to leave the government. He worked for a department store, the Washington Evening Star, then The Washington Post from 1954 to 1955 in the mailroom, but never worked again. A short and unhappy marriage ended in 1957 and his parents died two years later.
Maise Keller, a county social services worker who befriended Hellmuth eight years ago and frequently brings him food, said that Hellmuth's situation has depressed her.
"What can I do to help this man that he doesn't complain? He's just stern and set in his ways, like 'Nobody tells me what to do,' " she said. "Most of the people in the county would say he should be out -- no one should live like that."