The rain came down, the water went in, and this Concord couple was left out

  • Helen Davis and her boyfriend, Donald Buffum, look over the kitchen in their former apartment on Federal Street in Concord on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Helen Davis points to where the floodwaters came into their apartment on Federal Street in Concord. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Donald Buffum kisses Helen Davis on the forehead as they head out after checking out their former apartment.

  • Helen Davis points to where some of the water came into their apartment on Federal Street in Concord as her boyfriend, Donald Buffum, follows behind on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Donald Buffum gets ready to kiss Helen Davis on the forehead as they head out after checking out their former apartment on Federal Street. The two were forced out of the basement apartment after it flooded last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Helen Davis and her boyfriend, Donald Buffum, walk up Warren Street on their way to their former apartment on Federal Street in Concord on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Helen Davis collects a can of air freshener from her former apartment on Federal Street after she and her boyfriend were flooded out last week. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Helen Davis (left), stands in the backyard of what used to be her home as her boyfriend, Donald Buffum, slides aside a green recycling bin heavy with bags of rocks to get into the apartment on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2108. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Helen Davis is worried about going back to living homeless after being forced out of her apartment by flooding last week.

  • Donald Buffum worries about the toll the stress of losing their apartment is having on his girlfriend Helen Davis.

  • Helen Davis just wants what she had until last week when floodwaters made her apartment uninhabitable on Federal Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/20/2018 3:19:28 PM

The huge orange dumpster was full, loaded with soggy, stained pillows and blankets and foam insulation, and a drainboard with no dishes.

“That’s our stuff,” said Helen Davis, standing in the backyard of what used to be her home.

Later, her boyfriend, Donald Buffum, easily slid aside a green recycling bin – heavy with bags of rocks and blocking the screen door to keep us out – and we saw the extent of the damage. Mud on the floor, debris on the floor, a life on the floor. A big fan off the kitchen hummed.

“It smells pretty bad down here,” Davis said.

And it did. They were flooded out of their basement studio apartment on Federal Street after last week’s rain, and their plight, they say, smells as well, of something unjust. Was the weather their fault, they wonder? Shouldn’t someone be held responsible?

Meanwhile, they’re homeless, having pitched a tent somewhere in the woods behind Concord Hospital. Their two cats are safe with friends. It’s a stark reminder of how close lots of us are from suffering the same fate. But perhaps you have money saved and family nearby to lend a hand, to get you back on your feet.

Not here. Not Davis. Not Buffum

“I’d like to be in a place by the first of the month,” said Davis, sitting in front of the State House. “Or maybe the first of the month after that.”

The two have been together since 2006, the year Davis came to town after bouncing around.

They both receive Social Security and food stamps to get by, and they take full advantage of the food pantries and Friendly Kitchen. They say they both suffer from emotional and intellectual disabilities.

Hard luck is written on their faces and buried in that orange dumpster. Buffum, 38, was the quiet one, coming here from Keene, bearded, a smoker, sometimes hard to understand, tall and strong, which I learned after he manhandled that really heavy recycling bin as though it was empty. He goes by the name Cheyenne.

Davis, 45, is the spokesperson. Her face is narrow, and she had glitter dust near her eyes, which sparkled when her face caught the sun just right.

She’s a South Boston girl who grew up on welfare in a housing project called Old Colony. She laughed when I asked if her family struggled while growing up.

“My mom stood in line for block cheese,” Davis told me. “I love homemade mac and cheese.”

She came to New Hampshire about 20 years ago with her 2-year-old daughter, moving from Alexandria to Danbury to Bristol to Franklin, then here. There have been boyfriends along the way, and she has a teen boy and a teen girl, both of whom live in Ashland with their father.

She’s worked, at a convenience store, a Mexican restaurant and, last summer, a local cement company lifting, she said, 60 pound bags of cement. She can’t weigh much more than 120 herself. She hitchhiked to work and quit after three months, she said.

“I tried, but it just does not work,” Davis said, referring to her ability to hold a job.

In Concord, she’s close to Market Basket and Riverbend Community Mental Health and the Friendly Kitchen, which make Concord a good place for the homeless to settle.

But this couple was not homeless, at least not until last Wednesday night. The rain came and the water rushed down to the basement, from both sides of their apartment. Buffum was asleep on the couch, Davis watching Netflix.

“I could see from the side of my eyes the cats going crazy,” Davis remembered. “It got higher and higher. I woke up Don and we went around the apartment unplugging things and the water got quicker and faster.”

Davis said the water rose about 3 or 4 feet. She called 911, Buffum carried her outside, a firefighter saved the two cats, and the Red Cross arrived, giving them a card good for two nights at the Comfort Inn. Also, two kind women, who saw the pair at a local laundromat drying everything, right down to their sneakers, gave them money for munchies and a third night at the hotel.

“They were just awesome,” Davis told me.

She’s not as thrilled with T&L Family Investments, owner of the Federal Street building that includes the basement apartment. The couple paid the $750 monthly rent on time, Lonnie Rutledge, the co-owner and manager of the apartments, told me.

She said she was happy to offer them the apartment, a startup home that had been rented to college kids in the past, and was part of the affordable housing wing of the Community Action Program.

“They were recommended from someone and I was told they had been clean and living a good lifestyle,” Rutledge told me. “They were good tenants for six months, and then they went back to their old lifestyle.”

This is where the column devolves into a she said-she said scenario. Rutledge says the apartment was damaged before the flooding – a busted door, a busted screen, a yanked-out faucet, holes in the wall – and a “questionable crowd” was stopping over, with the smell of pot following them, as well as complaining neighbors and a visit from the police now and then.

Davis, reached by phone later, denied any direct involvement, telling me, “There were people who were trying to take advantage of our living situation, and a month later someone kicked in the door.”

Davis said she was told to file a lawsuit for losing her home through no fault of her own, if not against Rutledge, then perhaps the city for failing to fix a clogged drain down the street.

“Someone said some lawyers do pro bono work,” Davis said. “I don’t know how to do it.”

For now, they’re looking for another apartment. Davis said they can’t afford much.

“I can’t do this,” Davis said. “I can’t live like this. I want a kitchen, and I want a place to lay my head.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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