The old house and the woman inside it have shared a downward spiral for years. Sharon Baker is a recluse, breathing air through a tube hooked to an oxygen tank, sometimes sleeping in her closet when anxiety overwhelms her.
Rotted wood dooms her East Fort Worth house. Floor and ceiling beams sag. Walls lean. Windows won’t shut. Dead tree limbs rest atop a brittle, leaky roof. Trash bags piled high behind a crumbling privacy fence draw flies. The odor of cat urine is strong.
The house on Louise Street threatens to fall even as the woman inside struggles to rise.
“I have been trying since 1999 to get some assistance to get my roof fixed or to move,” she said. “It’s been a brick wall.”
In actuality, Baker has been offered help in the past that she wasn’t able to take advantage of. Now she knows time is running out for her house — but she has also found something to be hopeful about.
Pastor Harold Kuykendall heard Baker pleading for time with the Fort Worth Building Standards Commission during a Dec. 5 hearing. Kuykendall was seeking more time on his own construction project — he’s renovating a vacant property on East Lancaster Avenue with the hopes of starting his own church.
“When I saw what was going on with her, I stepped up and told her to give me a call,” he said.
City code compliance officers have run short on patience with Baker’s situation. They want the commission to declare the house substandard and a hazard to public health and safety. In such situations, the city typically gives violators 10 days to fix problems. Baker must prove that she is taking steps to repair the house, or she’ll have to move out. But she’s broke, living on disability income.
Baker is due to go before the commission again on Jan. 5 to prove she’s repairing her house. Otherwise she faces fines of up to $2,000 a day for numerous code violations that include charred and rotted wood, missing shingles and siding, foundation defects, and faulty weather protection.
Kuykendall has his own challenges. He’s trying to renovate the building that once housed the Theresa B. Lee Academy on East Lancaster Avenue. In 2008, the state ordered the controversial charter school closed due to substandard performance ratings, allegations of cheating on state tests, and questionable finances. The shuttered school and three temporary-classroom buildings at the back of the property have become a camp for homelesss people. Kuykendall has leased the property. He wants to sell the temporary buildings, clear the lot, and turn the main building into a home for his One Step Church that welcomes all races, creeds, and colors.
Kuykendall sympathized with Baker when he heard her describing her situation to commissioners.
“We’ve got to help each other,” Kuykendall said. “Color and money don’t matter. That’s not the way Jesus works.”
Over the years, Baker applied for various kinds of housing assistance through city, county, and private channels. But her situation doesn’t put her at the top of social service agencies’ help lists: At 51, she’s relatively young, has no children, and owns a house.
She qualified for the city’s Section 8 housing assistance in 2005 after years spent on a waiting list. But she said her promised assistance vanished when the city had to scramble to accommodate Hurricane Katrina refugees.
City housing officials said Katrina didn’t bump any locals from services. They said Baker lost her place on the waiting list after her live-in caretaker, Kathy Brown, missed appointments with a caseworker.
“She was scheduled to come in on two different occasions for a briefing on getting the [housing] voucher,” said Selarstean Mitchell, Fort Worth Housing Authority vice president of assisted housing. “She was a no-show, and she was withdrawn.”
Baker said she called the housing agency before the first appointment and was told it had been cancelled. She can’t remember whom she spoke with.
“We had an appointment to pick up the voucher, and we were told no because of Katrina,” she said. “We were told we would have to reapply at a later date. Since then they weren’t taking applications because they didn’t have anything available.”
Baker’s psychological problems create obstacles as well. She previously turned down a chance at a government-subsidized apartment because of her intense need for privacy — she couldn’t bear living in such close proximity to so many strangers. In addition to lung and leg problems, she is bipolar and suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Her psychological problems stem from a tragedy that occurred inside her house decades ago.
A yellowed news clipping from the Fort Worth Press of May 17, 1964, with the headline “Wife Slain, Mate Shot In Tragedy,” shows a 4-year-old Baker being held by a relative. The article describes how Russell Baker, 35, a day laborer, was distraught after he and his wife separated. He showed up at their house with a coloring book and some crayons and handed them to his daughter.
Sharon immediately went inside, plopped down on the living room floor, and began coloring. She remembers choosing a green color to fill in a picture of a grassy pasture with animals. Her mother, Johnnie May Baker, 27, settled on the floor beside her.
In a few minutes, Russell Baker re-entered the house carrying a .22-caliber pistol.
“He didn’t say anything,” Sharon Baker recalled. “We saw his shadow. We both looked up. He had the gun pointed at her. He shot once, and I started screaming.”
Russell Baker shot his wife three more times.
“He looked down at me but didn’t say anything,” Baker said.
Her father then walked into an adjacent room and shot himself in the head.
“I saw him lying there convulsing on the floor,” she said. “I always wondered why he didn’t shoot me.”
Police found a Bible in Russell Baker’s car, opened to a passage with these words underlined: “For the woman who hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth, but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”
A week later, another Press article quoted Sharon Baker as saying “Mommy’s gone home to be with Jesus.” The article described how the little girl never cried during her mother’s funeral, even when she stood beside the open casket.
Baker’s grandmother took her to live in Cleburne, but after a couple of weeks, the girl asked to return to the only home she’d ever known.
“I kept saying, ‘When are we going home?’ ” Baker recalled recently while sitting on her now-crumbling front porch.
Her grandmother returned to the house and raised Baker there.
“In some weird way it’s always been my sanctuary,” Baker said. “It’s always been home. I always said I’d die in this house.”
Baker inherited the house from her grandmother. But as stoic as she had been after her parents’ death in 1964, Baker became unhinged after her grandmother died in 1994.
She cried for days and finally decided to kill herself.
“I saw her with a gun, and I managed to get it away from her,” Brown said.
Baker could no longer handle her job dealing with customers at Wal-Mart. She worked in construction for a few years, but a knee injury and bronchial problems derailed that job. She’s had trouble breathing ever since and thinks she inhaled something dangerous doing construction work.
“I’ve never smoked, drank, or done illegal drugs,” she said.
The mental and physical problems pushed her to seek help from the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Brown serves as Baker’s caregiver, doling out medicine, making sure she eats properly, and doing household shopping. But Brown has her own problems with asthma and interstitial lung disease. Both women survive on disability checks, which leave little money for house repairs.
Kuykendall’s first visit to the home left him shaking his head. Built in 1930, the structure is valued by the Tarrant Appraisal District at $45,400. The land is valued at $8,400.
“This is old-style decking,” he said while inspecting the house’s exterior last week on a gray, drizzling day. “Look at the shingles hanging down.”
It quickly became evident to Kuykendall that the house cannot be saved. But he thinks he might be able to get enough repairs done to buy Baker some time.
“I may be able to pull some folks I know to get this house up to code,” he told Baker. “I’m just going to have to beat some bushes.”
He told her that ultimately she’ll need to tear down and rebuild her house or sell the property and find a new place to live.
“I’m embarrassed,” Baker said, looking glumly at the flaked paint on rotted wood that surrounds her porch. “I did what I could until I got injured. If I can find a place to stay … I’m willing to sell the house and get out of here.”
She thinks by March she could be in a position to move out.
“If we get out of this house, her mental state will get better,” Brown said.
Kuykendall sat on the front porch and talked to Baker and Brown for a while, all of them swatting at flies drawn to a nearby trash pile. Before he left, Kuykendall reached out his hands and knelt beside the two women. He said a prayer and asked Jesus to watch over them.
“Things will work out,” he said. “You’ll see.”