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River Life: Moving Indoors Might Be Inevitable


October 12, 2009

EAST HARTFORD - Willie walks from the riverbank to the woods that hide his home. Clanging noises ring out as he tears an old metal "Beware of The Dog" sign off a tree.

He put it there years ago. Now his dog, Gemini, is dead.

The loss of his beloved pet of 14 years is one of many things that have changed since The Courant published a story two years ago about the life that he and his friend Nancy share outdoors, on the banks of the Connecticut River. Willie has lived there for about 30 years.

>> Read The Courant's first story on Willie and his river life.

They now have two cats, named Mommy and Baby.

Willie has built an enclosure out of discarded barn boards and other lumber scraps; it helps protect their tent from the wind, which picked up speed under a graying sky on this fall day.

The biggest change might lie ahead. After enduring river floods that often come with spring, a 2007 fire that destroyed their shack and temperatures that plummet to zero, Willie and Nancy are looking to live indoors.

Willie wouldn't have to build a fire every time he wants to boil water. He wouldn't have to trudge 5 miles in the snow to buy kerosene for the portable heaters that warm their tent. They would stay dry.

"I'm thinking about trying to get a place," said Willie, 72. "I'm getting a little tired of being outside. At my age, I'm getting a little tired of chopping wood and getting kerosene."

A private person who doesn't want his or Nancy's last names published, Willie has accepted that he might have to live in a building with other people a far cry from what he wanted two years ago. Then, the only type of housing Willie would consider was a house on a big lot, with lots of privacy.

But living with other people, maybe lots of them?

"I can deal with that," he said.

He continues to reject the notion of going to a shelter or even a rooming house. And he wants to stay with Nancy.

"I'm not going without her," Willie said.

Nancy: "I'm not going without him."

Finding the right kind of housing before the weather turns is proving to be tricky.

Kathy Kane, their social worker at East Hartford Town Hall, has been making calls on their behalf. There's some public housing in town that might work for them, she said, but there's a long waiting list.

Then there are the eligibility rules. And questions that are hard to answer.

Kane has been asked questions about their credit history, previous landlords and utility bills. None apply to Willie and Nancy. They don't have credit cards, and although they have permission to live on the river flood plain, they don't pay rent or have electricity.

Even the most simple question was hard to answer: "What is their current address?"

"OK," Kane thought, "How am I going to answer this one?"

Kane said that Willie and Nancy might like living in a privately owned home. As long as it's on a bus line, she said.

"I think they would do so well in something like a two-family [house]," she said. Willie said he gets more than $600 a month in Social Security. Nancy said she gets about $500.

They might be able to make those dollars stretch. They don't eat much, and most of what they buy comes from tag sales.

"Hopefully, this will have a happy ending," Kane said. "But time will tell."

While they fill out housing applications and wait for responses, Willie and Nancy have started coming inside. They spent last weekend at a local motel.

"He's getting too old. His legs ... " Nancy said of Willie, trailing off. Willie recently went for a long jog and pulled a muscle, she said.

That's the last time he does that, Willie said.

"I'm tired."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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