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Her house condemned, elderly woman sleeps in a van

The elderly woman who lives in the van in the shopping center on 41st Street in Hampden is Harriet Kahn. It says "Kahn" on the vanity plates of her van, but "Can" is how she pronounces her name because, she says, the softer "ah" (as in "Kaan") gives her name a pretentiousness she dislikes.

Ms. Kahn is at most 5 feet tall; she says she'll be 80 in late March. She has small hands. Her hair is straight and gray; she keeps it wrapped with a scarf on cold days. She has sharp features and dark eyes with a certain savvy spark. She doesn't seem to miss a thing in conversation and, while she's all business when discussing her complex affairs, she appreciates a quip or amusing observation. She can still laugh.

Ms. Kahn reads newspapers at one of the tables by the coffee machine in the 41st Street Giant. She keeps her van on the west edge of the parking lot there. She sits in the van and listens every day to conservative talk on WCBM; she likes Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

"I'm a Republican," she says.

She frequently visits the Enoch Pratt Free Library to use its computers. When she sleeps in the van at night, she keeps the engine running to have heat. There are numerous blankets and other belongings in the van.

We met for the first time in November, again in December.

The other day, seeing the van in its usual place and finding Ms. Kahn nearby, I asked to speak to her again. She suggested that we meet in the Dunkin' Donuts at the shopping center entrance. "There's privacy there," she said.

I ordered a coffee; Ms. Kahn politely declined my offer to buy her something to eat.

After she told me her life story — from her Russian grandfather's arrival in Baltimore to her childhood in the affluent Dumbarton section of Pikesville in Baltimore County to her days at the Park School, followed by college education and musical training in Boston — I asked Ms. Kahn why, approaching her 80th birthday, she was homeless.

"I'm not," she said. "I have a house."

But, unfortunately, it is a house that the city calls a nuisance — unfit for human habitation. It is a Formstone-coated corner rowhouse on a pleasant-looking street in Woodberry, near Television Hill. With some inheritance from an aunt, Ms. Kahn paid $32,000 in cash for the place in 1992. "It was a fixer-upper," she says.

But apparently not much fixing up took place over the years.

Complaints from a neighbor in 2012 led to a city inspection that found weak kitchen floors, defective or collapsed ceilings, gaps between floors and walls, a large number of stacked boxes, extension cords running throughout the property, no sink, stove or running water.

On March 29, 2012, the city condemned the house. Ms. Kahn says she has been living in her van ever since, with occasional clandestine overnight stays in her Woodberry home.

"The police came a few times and took me away," Ms. Kahn said when I asked if she had been caught inside the condemned house.

She pulled some documents from a manila envelope and mentioned how, having worked for attorneys over the years, she knew her rights. She still seems to believe that she can get her house back through litigation.

She also seems to believe that selling off a collection of rare books at Sotheby's would net her enough cash to fix up the house.

But the chance of that seems remote. The property has been placed with One House At A Time Inc., a nonprofit that serves as the city's receiver of vacant property. The organization sells off 30 problem properties a month, though it has no immediate plans for Ms. Kahn's, according to executive director Larry Grubb.

"This is a sad, complicated story," Grubb says. "She has unintentionally allowed her house to become a danger to her neighbors. … She has shown she does not have the organizational skills to get the needed work done to remove the danger. … I'm not sure she even recognizes the problem her house has become. The neighbors are anxious and concerned. There is no win-win solution in sight."

The Department of Housing and Community Development's ombudsman met with Ms. Khan several times to extend offers of help during 2012, according Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman with Baltimore Housing. "None was ever accepted," she says, and that included an offer of rental assistance.

At some point, housing officials made the Department of Social Services and its Adult Protective Services group aware of the situation, but Ms. Kahn does not appear to have accepted any help.

She even declined an offer from cousins who, she says, had proposed paying the rent for her on an efficiency apartment in Hampden.

I told Ms. Kahn she should reconsider. People are willing to help. A near-octogenarian should not live in a van.

But she didn't seem to see what the big deal was, saying, "When I had my house, I was so busy, I was hardly there anyway."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.


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