For years, Maria Fitzsimons has invited the homeless to stay at her house in Franklin Square. But next month, Fitzsimons might become homeless herself.
On July 22, she received an eviction notice from the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department, saying that a county court judge had ruled that Manhattan-based Diplomat Property Manager LLC owns the 3rd Avenue property, and that Fitzsimons, as well as eight other people and one service dog with whom she lives, must be out by Nov. 5.
“I’ve never been thrown out before in my life,” she said.
Fitzsimons, 68, bought the property in 2007 for $419,000, according to documents from the county clerk’s office. Living off life insurance payments of her late husband, she began inviting homeless people she met at an Elmont soup kitchen to her house. The guests stayed at Fitzsimons’s home rent-free.
“I didn’t want to be put in the street,” Fitzsimons explained, “so why would I put other people on the street?”
Eventually, however, paying for the utilities and taxes on her home on her fixed income became too much, and she started missing mortgage payments. By the time her house was foreclosed on in October 2016, she owed more than $605,000, according to court documents.
In August 2018, the house was sold at a public auction to Diplomat Property Manager, an investment company, for roughly $610,000.
A company representative could not be reached for comment, but court documents show that Diplomat Property Manager sent the tenants a notice to move out in January this year, and in February the company filed a petition to recover the property. Fitzsimons and her housemates then received a summons asking them to appear in court for a “final judgment evicting you and awarding the petitioner possession” of the house.
They spent the next few months trying to negotiate what they called a fairer deal, but to no avail, Fitzsimons said. She sent a letter to Diplomat’s attorney, asking if she and her current husband, Dale Palermo, could rent the house for six months at $2,000 per month, plus the cost of utilities. “I do believe this can be a good solution for all of us, including Diplomat Property Manager LLC,” Fitzsimons wrote. “However, we would like a lease, starting [with] what this proposal is saying.”
Diplomat did not accept her offer, however, and demanded $2,775 a month in rent as well as two previous months’ rent. And while some of the people who are staying at the house have low-paying jobs, they do not make enough to support the group as a whole.
Mandy Cockayne, who has lived with Fitzsimons and Palermo for the past three years, suggested that Diplomat negotiate a “Cash for Keys” agreement in which the homeowner pays tenants to have them leave in a timely fashion. But, Cockayne said, Diplomat once again refused.
“We don’t want to stay here,” Fitzsimons explained. “We just want them to give us more time.”
She estimated that moving into a new house would cost $10,000, as landlords usually want three months of rent up front. “If we were working people,” Fitzsimons said, “we would have been out already.”
But she and her husband do not work and cannot afford any of the options currently on the market, she added, and they cannot go to a shelter, because they each have several health issues. Fitzsimons suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, severe asthma, hypertension, pre-diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease and anxiety.
“I’m surprised I’m not in the hospital with a nervous breakdown,” she said of the eviction notice. “I feel like I’m living in a bad dream and I can’t wake up.”
Palermo was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, diabetes, kidney disease, hyperlipidemia, heart disease, hypertension and COPD within the past three years. He lost his job as a taxi driver in New York City, and now undergoes four hours of dialysis treatment three times a week. When he returns home, Fitzsimons said, he is exhausted, and sometimes has to be put on oxygen for several days.
“This is going to be the rest of his life,” Fitzsimons said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen day to day.”
As a result, she said, Palermo cannot live in a shelter, where he would have to leave during the day, nor can he stay at a hotel, where there are too many germs. She cited a doctor’s note from September, in which Dr. Charles Hinz wrote that Palermo “will die if homeless or in a shelter.”
Fitzsimons’s other tenants have health issues as well. Cockayne has spinal issues, anxiety, is blind in one eye and has a blood clot on her liver. She sees doctors at least three times a week, she said, and takes about a dozen medications a day. If she were to live in a shelter, Cockayne worries that she would be unable to schedule her doctors’ appointments and that other shelter residents would steal her medicine, some of which are controlled substances.
Additionally Angela D., who lives in the basement and did not want her full name used, uses oxygen for COPD. The last time she was homeless, she said, she lived in her car for nearly nine months, after which she had to be rushed to South Nassau Communities Hospital, in Oceanside, for carbon monoxide poisoning. Angela now worries that she will once again be relegated to living in the car.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to go through that again,” she said.
Each of the tenants said they have researched alternative living arrangements, but according to Cockayne, there is a four-year waiting list for low-income housing, and Angela said she cannot find a shelter. Additionally, the group said, the Nassau County Department of Social Services was unable to help them.
If they were to have their own house, though, Fitzsimons said, they would pay rent and pay back the community.
“We want to pay,” Angela said. “We don’t want something for nothing.”
“We just want someone to understand where we’re coming from,” Cockayne added. “We’re not asking for sympathy. We’re asking for help.”