As neighbors complain that a Fan garage has become more than storage space for a roving couple, city officials and the property's landlord say it's not their job - or their right to force them to move.
The night's a bust, and a thunderstorm is about to dump another quick one on the city.
"Man, I feel like I've failed you," Sgt. Jim Peace says to Fan resident Greg Winter.
"Naw," Winter assures, turning toward his house to go. "They're not here tonight."
Peace and Winter break up their meeting where they hoped to catch Jack and Betty Swandol going into a garage in the alley off Strawberry Street between Grove and Floyd avenues. Meanwhile, a handful of night strollers scurries along the side street's well-lit walk to beat the downpour.
If tonight is like many since last October, Swandol, a weathered-looking man people guess to be close to 50, will show up with his wife, Betty, a 40-something woman developmentally slow, but with quick blue eyes. They take cover in the only place they feel entitled - two rented garages behind the 2400 block of Floyd Avenue. And for nine months, Swandol has made sure he's paid the $245 a month rent on time.
Still, police who know him say he's careful to admit he only stores stuff in the garages he leases from a Ginter Park couple. To sleep in there would be a building code violation and could get the Swandols kicked to the curb. Neither garage has the proper ventilation or plumbing to make it habitable. One has electricity. And in order to be in violation, people have to prove the Swandols actually sleep there.
It has unnerved some in the neighborhood, not just because vagrants have taken up residence in the alley. Some fear also for Betty's health. They allege Jack locks her in the garage - a building with no plumbing in the heat of the day for her own protection while he's out. While Fan residents charge the city with ignoring repeated complaints and the community with failing to serve its mentally disabled residents, city officials appear baffled by a problem they say was fixed months ago when the two garage bays rented by the Swandols were condemned, an act meant to force the couple to seek shelter elsewhere. But after only a few weeks, they returned to the garage they lawfully rent. And now it appears they are spending at least some nights there. As neighbors, landlords, and the city spar over what to do and who should do it, it's likely Jack and Betty Swandol have a place to stay. Whether unnoticed or caught on video by spying neighbors, they come and go like ants, collecting ever more stuff to cram into the garages.
Neighbors say the Swandols usually slip out very early in the morning and return if they do late at night.
Fan residents Dr. Edward Peeples and Greg Winter have made it their mission to document what they see in hopes of proving that they are, indeed, living in the garages. Peeples and Winter are not alone. But other neighbors asked not to be identified for fear that their property might become a target for vengeance. A month ago a bucket of human excrement was thrown onto one neighbor's porch after that neighbor complained about the couple.
According to Peace, the only money for the Swandols comes from occasional cash for odd jobs Swandol picks up or from his wife's disability check that's sent monthly to a post office box.
By all accounts from city officials, the Swandols haven't been caught breaking any laws and landlords Robert and Helen McIver, who own the 12 garages off Strawberry Street, are upholding the standards enforced by city building code inspectors.
"I've thought about asking him to leave but that would probably present us with a problem," says Helen McIver, whose husband, Bob, owns 50 garages throughout Richmond. "I imagine we'd be sued."
"I've asked my lawyer, 'Can we get them out?'" But McIver says her lawyer tells her that Swandol's contract is binding and completely legal. For the brief time that the bays were condemned, the couple seemingly stayed away. But after the apparent bedding was removed, the orange condemned notices were ripped off the doors, and the Swandols returned. Still paying rent, it was lawful for them to do so.
"I suspected they were living in there or resting in there. But you can't read behind everybody's eyeballs," she says. "As much as I don't care for him, he has every right to be there."
McIver says Swandol keeps in his garage ladders, tools, old air conditioners and other things he says he can fix up and give to poor people.
The Swandols' lease on the garages is up the end of September.
City property maintenance inspector David Cooper says he doesn't have the right to force the Swandols out. "My responsibility is only in making sure that the buildings are in compliance," says Cooper, adding that at the present time, they are.
But when Mayor Tim Kaine says he learned from Style June 30 that the Swandols were likely back, he said the building-code enforcement office would send someone over to the garage space after hours. "We've taken it all very seriously, " Kaine says. In fact, he adds, "It makes me sad because I thought that was one [problem] we had taken care of and could cross off our list."
Despite soggy clothes draped over Supercans flipped open and stinking, and the small pile of garbage fresh from the night before, there's no proof the Swandols have actually moved in. Not even the radio blaring behind a locked door necessarily gives them away.
"It's just a hands-off posture that the city has taken," says Peeples, a retired professor of public health and sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He fears it's as much a public health issue as it is a landlord and tenant one.
"The police are correct in one sense, it's a mental health problem and the dumping of mental health patients in the community. It's not just about us as victims, but about them, too, and a city and a landlord that won't respond to either. They just want to back off."
"We don't have a lot in our bag of tricks to deal with this sort of thing," says Sgt. Peace. "It's not a criminal matter. I've gotten terribly nosy and invasive with this guy," Peace says. "I'm playing the social worker while I'm carrying a weapon. How far can I push with a badge for this neighborhood?"
Like Kaine, Peace is surprised to learn the garage situation with the Swandols is still a problem. He says he thought the matter was resolved months ago when he met with Swandol, Cooper and a representative from Adult Protective Services.
But Swandol, apparently, didn't want the services or housing proposed at the meeting, and in a matter of days or weeks, was back at the garage.
Still, Peace concedes, "This is a man that's backed into a corner. If you were in his shoes would you sleep out in the rain or in the
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