Evicted with Six Months to Live

On Thanksgiving Day weekend, Fanchon Fetters came home from the hospital, having been just diagnosed with breast cancer. She found a warning on her bed for missing a meeting with her case manager, Verna Johnson. On December 18, she received a notice of termination from the program that provided her with housing at Heading Home, a Boston nonprofit that provides permanent and transitional housing to people without homes. She had one month to leave.

Eviction proceedings halted when Fetters involved a lawyer from the Disability Law Center, a firm that specializes in, among other things, cases involving disabled people’s housing rights.

It was Fetters’ case manager who chose to evict her. One of Verna Johnson’s responsibilities was meeting with Fetters periodically to check up on her and to make sure she was maintaining her living space. Johnson gave Fetters her first warning when she missed a meeting because she was in the hospital. When Fetters called Heading Home’s program manager, Joanne Bowen, to explain why she missed the meeting, Fetters said Bowen provided no help.

“When I told her I was going to have my breast amputated because of breast cancer, all Joanne Bowen could say to me was, ‘You have to see your case manager,’” said Fetters. “She didn’t even say, ‘Can we help you? Are you going to be okay?’”

Fetters said that Johnson had been abusive toward her since she’d begun living at an apartment that Heading Home provided for her at 109 School St. in Cambridge. The first incident Fetters remembers is when Johnson reprimanded her for speaking to a roommate who had just broken up with her boyfriend.

“She said, ‘Your roommates don’t want to be bothered, so don’t speak to them unless they speak to you.’ I couldn’t believe it! I was totally in shock that she would say that. If my roommate didn’t want conversation, then why was she saying ‘I’m so heartbroken’ and saying how she was feeling? If she didn’t want to talk to anyone, why was she talking to us? It was pretty twisted,” said Fetters.

In addition to having breast cancer, Fetters has a compressed disk in her back. It is very difficult for her to do anything physical, and she has to take morphine to alleviate the pain.

When Fetters first moved into the apartment, she said she told Johnson, who was accompanying her, that she had to make several trips up the stairs to move all of her luggage in. Fetters said Johnson responded by telling her that if she could not lift or carry anything then she did not belong in the apartment. According to Fetters, Johnson also told her that she did not belong there if she cannot sweep or mop.

“[Heading Home] talks about how they want to end homelessness, and they want to get donations and stuff like that,” Fetters explained. “They don’t practice what they preach. They want to evict you as fast as you get in there.”

Heading Home’s website states that their mission is to “end homelessness in Greater Boston by providing a supported pathway to self-sufficiency that begins with a home, together with critical services such as life skills, financial literacy and job training.” Fetters had been homeless until she received housing provided by Heading Home.

Fetters recounted an instance where Johnson came into her room unannounced at 7:30 a.m. demanding to meet with her. According to Fetters, she told Johnson that she could not meet because she had an appointment and had even left Johnson a voicemail saying she could not meet. Verna claimed she had never received the voicemail.

“So she’s in there bitching me out, and then we went in to sit in the living room. There were crumbs on the floor, and the pillows were not perfectly, neatly stacked on the couch. [Johnson] picks the pillows up and starts throwing them and going psycho about the pillows and [getting] angry at me for messing with the pillows. ‘Well you’re the only one who stays in the common area, you’re the one who did it.’ I have two roommates,” recalled Fetters. “And then the crumbs on the floor—big deal, it can be cleaned up.”

“I called Joanne and said, ‘Verna is very abusive,’ and she said, ‘You imagined it.’ The hogs are all feeding from the same trough. How can the staff always be right and the tenants always wrong?”

Fetters first came into contact with the Disability Law Center through Andy Forman, a senior disability advocate at the Boston Center for Independent Living. Before Fetters contacted the lawyer who halted her eviction—who wished not to be named—Forman himself tried to mediate between Fetters and Johnson.

“She was rude. I spoke to Verna on December 27,” Forman explained. “She said to me that Heading Home was evicting Fanchon because, I guess, Fanchon was being abusive to Verna and was being abusive to neighbors. I met Fanchon many times here in my office, and she’s never been violent or anything else towards me. I found her to be very nice and pleasant. I deal with homeless people all the time.”

Forman said Johnson was very abrupt with him on the phone, and she said that there was no way to halt the eviction.

“I’ve talked to many housing authorities before who say, ‘You want to meet? Let’s meet and see if we can work this out.’ But this seems like it was too far,” said Forman.

Johnson refused to speak about Fetters, directing inquiries to Tom Lorello, Heading Home’s executive director.

Lorello said that the eviction has been stopped, and Heading Home is working out the details with the Disability Law Center lawyer representing Fetters. Lorello also confirmed that Johnson is an employee at Heading Home.

Fetters said that one of her friends, a homeless man named Steven Bonner, was spending time with her to help her maintain her apartment. According to Fetters, Bonner grew so angry at how Johnson was treating her that he threatened to stab the caseworker. Fetters reported this to her social worker, who then reported it to the police. A while later, Fetters said she received a court summons accusing her of threatening to stab Johnson. Fetters explained it was Bonner who had made the threat and the charges were soon dropped.

Fetters’ cancer prognosis is not good, according to her. The cancer has spread beyond her breast and she only has about six months to live.

“I was in shock, but I’m actually happy I get to leave this earth. Look at all the problems I’m having. Cancer is the least of my worries,” says Fetters. “Do you think I’m worried about my cancer? No! There are worse things than that. I got people throwing me out in the street and people being abusive to me. I think this earth is the devil’s domain.”

She said her only regret is that she will not be able to continue her campaign against prenatal exposure to drugs, a cause she has been dedicated to for most of her life.

“How am I going to do my crusade now? My crusade is over. I was devastated. I couldn’t protect the unborn,” she said.

“As far as death is concerned, I’m spiritual. I don’t think death is the end. I think that when we die, we go to a better place, so I’m very positive about it. I’m not, like, ‘Boo hoo hoo, I’m going to die.’ No,” she said.

Fetters lives in a small Cambridge apartment. Because of her health problems, she often has to be connected to an oxygen tank. She is regularly visited by hospice care to take care of her. She has much difficulty cooking and cleaning for herself.

Despite her eviction being halted, Fetters plans to go to Texas to stay with a friend. She said she is fed up with her experience with Heading Home.

Fetters also said she is considering returning to her birthplace, Seattle, for assisted suicide—what she called the “death drink.”

“It’s better that than being bedridden for six months,” she said.

Jack Adams is a local writer and photographer who covers social justice issues around the Boston area.

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