Friends and family of the late Spencer Harris say Menlo Park code enforcement officers need a lesson in sensitivity training after officers evicted Harris from his home in Menlo Park with only 24 hours notice to vacate.
If they had treated Harris’ mental illness more delicately, they say, perhaps he would be alive today.
Harris had lived in an apartment building on the 800 block of Roble Avenue in Menlo Park for nearly 30 years, until he went away to vacation in Mexico. While he was in Cancun, his tendency to hoard items in his apartment was brought to the attention of the apartment complex manager, who then served Harris with a 24-hour eviction notice.
Code enforcement officers forcibly entered his home, served him with a 24-hour eviction notice, and a few weeks later, on May 17, Harris committed suicide.
Not Your Typical ‘Hoarder
Friends and neighbors say that Harris was considered a fixture in Menlo Park, and acted at least 20 years younger than his age of 74. Much unlike the reclusive characters featured in the infamous reality television show “Hoarders,” Harris could regularly be found at Peet’s Coffee shop on Santa Cruz Avenue in the mornings, reading a newspaper and chatting with other regulars.
It was one of these friends that he was vacationing with in Cancun when officers entered his apartment on May 5.
The Night that Changed Harris’ Life
A neighbor noticed stacks of newspapers and mail piling up on Harris’ doorstep, so he informed the building manager, Shirleen McDougal. McDougal said that she called police to enter his apartment to make sure that everything was okay.
That night, Lynn Huidekoper, a friend of Harris’ who lives in the same building, came out of her apartment “to ask McDougal and the police what was going on.”
When they told her they were entering his apartment to perform a “welfare check,” Huidekoper informed them that she knew for a fact that Harris was on vacation in Cancun.
“I showed her an e-mail from him from Cancun, Mexico,” Huidekoper said, “He wasn’t home, so they did not need to go into his apartment.”
Although she had not been inside Harris’ apartment for several years, she knew he was a hoarder, though he preferred to refer to himself as “an accumulator” who liked to collect things he referred to as “his identity.”
“I knew he collected a lot of stuff, and that if they saw it, he would be in trouble,” Huidekoper said.
Huidekoper said McDougal and the officers refused to acknowledge her explanation, and began acting hostile toward her for attempting to interfere. She went back into her apartment to get her phone and called Harris in Cancun. He didn’t answer right away, but called her back a few minutes later.
When she told McDougal and the officers that she had Harris on the phone, she said they told her to “go back in her apartment and mind her own business.” When she persisted, Huidekoper said the officers threatened to handcuff her.
“They kept saying they were obligated by law to follow up on the other neighbor’s concern,” Huidekoper said, “They started harassing me, and kept yelling at me to get back in my apartment.”
“I kept trying to tell them he was fine. For 30 minutes I tried to get someone to talk to him on the phone.”
Nicole Acker, Menlo Park Police Spokesperson, says the police report filed about the incident indicates the opposite - that the officers asked Huidekoper to give them the phone so they could speak to Harris when he called her back from Cancun, but that Huidekoper refused to hand them the phone.
Huidekoper says the police are lying.
Huidekoper said she watched in horror as the officers used a saw to remove the locks off Harris’ door to open it, since the manager said she did not possess a key to his apartment. As Huidekoper feared, the police found the condition of Harris’ apartment to be serious. Liz Fambrini, Menlo Park Police code enforcement officer, was called in to assess Harris’ apartment a few days later.
What Officers Found in Harris’ Apartment
Acker says what Officer Fambrini found in Harris’ apartment made it “uninhabitable.”
“She had problems breathing in there, because of all the dust and mold that had built up,” Acker explained, as she went on to describe the conditions inside.
Papers and newspapers were stacked in front of gas heaters. Mounds of grease lay atop Harris’ gas stove. Boxes were stacked up to the ceiling, while extension cords snaked throughout the apartment. The carpet was also ripped in multiple places.
Acker said that if a fire had sparked in Harris’ apartment, it could have spread to other apartments, and therefore it posed a danger to other tenants, warranting the eviction. Fambrinini’s report indicates that the kitchen floor was caving in, and that she was sure it was due to water damage or dry rot, according to Acker.
“And, the toilet was not working, and she couldn’t tell how long it had been not functioning,” Acker said.
Following the inspection by Officer Fambrini, Huidekoper said her friend Harris was served with the 24-hour eviction notice.
Losing His Home and His Identity
A Pod storage compartment was ordered for Harris and he was subsequently instructed to sort through his things. He was to put the things he wanted to keep in the Pod.
Huidekoper said McDougal threw everything that was to be thrown away on the front lawn, without regard for Harris’ sentimental attachment to any particular item. Though he attempted to deal with everything calmly, Huidekoper said she could tell her friend was traumatized by the complete overhaul of his home and his worldly possessions - which he hated anyone touching.
“I saw him about two days into the whole process, and I could see he was quickly unraveling,” she said.
Huidekoper said McDougal and the officers were extremely rude and cruel, and should have treated Harris with sensitivity, since hoarding is a recognized form of mental illness.
“If you watch the TV show Hoarders, they do it right,” she said, “The cleaning out of the home is done together with a psychologist present and a professional organizer. Over a long period of time, they get them to sort things and throw things away, so it’s not so traumatic.”
“The problem with Spencer is they only gave him 24 hours’ notice, and used no sensitivity toward this being a mental illness,” she continued. “When he returned from Cancun, I knew this would throw him into a tizzy, and it did.”
According to Huidekoper, Harris was told that once the apartment was cleaned out and repaired, he could move back into the building.
In the meantime, she said he rented a room at a nearby motel until the night of May 17.
She Didn't Know He Owned A Gun
She said that on the evening of May 17, Harris drove his car to the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, where he shot himself.
Phone records indicate he called his best friend four minutes before his death but could not reach him; a suicide e-mail was discovered later. A few days earlier, Harris had given a friend the password to his e-mail account and asked him to please log in because "he had a few e-mails he wanted him to look at," Huidekoper said.
The mutual friend had assumed the e-mails contained financial information at the time, since he often gave Harris financial advice. But instead the email account held a suicide letter, which had been written a few days earlier.
The letter said Harris had been devastated by strangers entering his apartment and touching his things, which he felt stripped him of his home and forced him to throw away possessions, which he called “his identity.”
In the letter, he said the whole situation had forced him into “a depression spin,” and that he “no longer had the energy” to handle it.
Is A 24-Eviction Notice Legal?
To Be Continued...
A memorial service for Spencer Harris is being held tonight, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the , which is located at 950 Santa Cruz Ave.