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How does a 77-year-old homeowner with a disability end up living on Belleville’s streets?

David Semrau waves goodbye to his friends, Diane Burrelsman and Chuck Wood, who had come to visit him Aug. 5 at the Town House Motel in Belleville, where’s he’s been staying since being evicted.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
David Semrau waves goodbye to his friends, Diane Burrelsman and Chuck Wood, who had come to visit him Aug. 5 at the Town House Motel in Belleville, where’s he’s been staying since being evicted.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

A 77-year-old man with a cognitive disability sat in a chair in the front yard, locked out of his small Belleville home, surrounded by furniture, clothes and other belongings, alone and clueless about what to do next.

How could this happen?

The simple answer is that David Semrau was evicted. He didn’t pay his property taxes, St. Clair County foreclosed, the home was sold at auction and Semrau ignored legal notices from the new owner telling him to leave.

But a closer look reveals a series of breakdowns in a system that struggles to deal with people who don’t fit into traditional society or follow all its rules.

In this case, the “system” includes St. Clair County tax collectors and sheriff’s deputies, Belleville police and city officials, a nonprofit agency that serves people with disabilities, an investor who buys delinquent houses, the power company, the library, churches, neighbors, relatives and friends.

In other words, almost everyone.

“It’s not just David,” said Diane Burrelsman, 49, a Belleville woman who has become an advocate for Semrau. “Think of all the mentally disabled people out there. They are so vulnerable. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Burrelsman checks on Semrau regularly at the Town House Motel, where he’s been staying off and on for two months. He was homeless for a week, wandering city streets and sleeping at bus stations.

The motel room is being paid for by Chuck Wood, another Good Samaritan who’s trying to buy Semrau time while Burrelsman works to find affordable senior housing for him.

Burrelsman and Wood were attending the same Fairview Heights church six years ago, when Burrelsman first met Semrau at Belleville Public Library and learned of his social and financial problems. They saw helping him as an extension of their Christian faith.

Semrau seemed to possess survival skills, but he also showed signs of autism, according to Burrelsman and others.

“I personally don’t think he’s capable of holding down a job,” said Wood, 60, of Belleville. “So he is considered, in my mind, what the scripture calls ‘the least of us.’ He’s been just kind of put off to the side, and nobody cares about him. But he’s still a beating heart and a lost soul.”

David Semrau has been staying at a Belleville hotel off and on since early June. He was evicted from a small home on North Fourth Street, where he had lived for 27 years.
Teri Maddox
Belleville News-Democrat
David Semrau has been staying at a Belleville hotel off and on since early June. He was evicted from a small home on North Fourth Street, where he had lived for 27 years.

Eviction on May 31

Burrelsman and Wood tried to save Semrau’s home by paying a lump sum for back taxes and spending thousands of dollars on repairs, but they said they didn’t totally understand the delinquent-tax process and relied too heavily on a non-profit agency assisting with the case.

Semrau had bought the 1,018-square-foot home with gray asphalt siding at 520 N. Fourth St. 27 years ago, according to St. Clair County property records. He was evicted May 31.

Semrau isn’t adept at abstract thought and focuses mainly on his daily routine, Burrelman said, so he didn’t fully grasp the concept that his inaction could eventually put him on the street.

When asked what happened to his home, Semrau replied, “They threw all my stuff out in the front yard. I went back there to get my clothing, and it was laying by my fence, by my mailbox, by the street. They nailed the door shut.”

Actually, the locks were changed. That’s part of the process when a property owner evicts a tenant who’s behind on rent or a squatter living in a vacant home without permission. In this case, the new owner assumed Semrau was the latter and nothing more.

Neighbor Joe Wiggins, 41, was infuriated by what he saw happen two doors down.

“These people came and opened the door and just started taking (Semrau’s) stuff out, all his precious possessions,” he said. “They were just laying on the ground. It was so degrading. They knew good and well that Dave didn’t know what was going on, and they made him homeless. They didn’t even care.

“The day that he was evicted, Dave didn’t have anything. (He returned from the store and) saw the cops and just kept walking. I saw him the next day, and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was so sad. I wanted to cry because he just had a pillow and his cart.”

Diagnosis Unclear

Semrau is 5-foot-11 and stout with a shaved head. He walks or rides the bus to buy food and other supplies, usually at a dollar store. He rarely complains about physical ailments and won’t take medication for his newly discovered hyperglycemia and high blood pressure.

Semrau is something of a “hoarder,” but he’s also obsessed with cleanliness, Burrelsman said.

Semrau answered questions about his life and background during a recent BND interview, despite being distracted by his main goal for the day: Finding a motel housekeeper to bring clean towels and toilet paper and to mop up a sticky spot on the floor.

Semrau provided many factually correct details, including names, dates and places. He also got confused, insisting he had known Burrelsman since she was a baby. He became agitated at times.

“I’m old!” Semrau shot back when asked about his halting speech, which makes it seem like he’s gasping for breath.

According to Semrau, he had a volatile relationship with his mother, who often called police on him; he dropped out of high school and earned a GED; enlisted in the U.S. Navy but didn’t finish boot camp; married and divorced three times; became estranged from his two sons and other relatives; and held small jobs walking racehorses and fixing lawnmowers.

Semrau said he also received mental-health treatment and lived in “nursing homes” as a younger man. He couldn’t recall his diagnosis, except to say he was depressed after his first wife divorced him.

In the past 20 years, Semrau’s St. Clair County court record has included several charges by Belleville police of disorderly conduct for actions ranging from threatening a neighbor to playing loud music to chasing juveniles; two battery counts for allegedly punching a woman and “head-butting” a man; orders of protection and small claims.

In some cases, Semrau skipped court hearings, landing him in jail.

Today, Semrau argues that his behavior was often the result of people harassing him. Burrelsman describes him as a “big kid” who sometimes throws “tantrums” that can scare strangers.

Semrau’s sons couldn’t be reached for comment.

'Fixture' of neighborhood

Wiggins called Semrau a “fixture” of the North Fourth Street neighborhood.

“He kept to himself,” said Kimberly Brown, who lived across the street for 10 years. “I did help him once with his cellphone, but he had to take it back to Family Dollar. He had a TracFone.

“He was no problem. He was just a very lonely person. He wasn’t a crazy maniac or anything. I don’t think he understood life. He could have had Alzheimer’s or dementia.”

Wiggins remembers thinking Semrau was a little weird when he saw him sitting in a chair in his front yard one night after dark wearing his trademark boxy, wraparound sunglasses, but eventually they became friends.

Sometimes they walked to nearby St. Paul United Church of Christ for Tuesday night community meals. Wiggins gave Semrau tomatoes and other vegetables from his garden.

“I wouldn’t say that he was mentally disabled all the way,” Wiggins said. “But he was older, and he didn’t understand everything that was going on. Maybe he was on the spectrum of autism. But he was a sweet, innocent guy.”

Sandy Ritter, who coordinates the church meals, had been wondering recently if Semrau was OK since she hadn’t seen him for two months.

Many people who eat at St. Paul are homeless, and volunteers don’t know much about them, according to Ritter. She remembers Semrau pulling his things in a rolling cart and wearing sunglasses.

“He had a bad attitude, and he was kind of grumpy, but once we found out his name and started calling him by name, he softened up,” Ritter said. “You have to give him space. He’s a loner. He wants to sit by himself, and you don’t mess with him. He’s a tough cookie.”

Diane Burrelsman, left, and Chuck Wood, right, have been helping David Semrau with back taxes, home improvements and now motel bills. They see it as an extension of their Christian faith.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Diane Burrelsman, left, and Chuck Wood, right, have been helping David Semrau with back taxes, home improvements and now motel bills. They see it as an extension of their Christian faith.

Cry for help?

Burrelsman is a scheduler at John J. Cochran Veterans Hospital in St. Louis. She was working at Belleville Public Library’s downtown branch in 2017, when she met Semrau, a regular patron.

Burrelsman said she suspected that Semrau had a mental impairment. She tried to be kind and gave him suckers.

“One day, David was on a computer, and he turned to me and said, ‘I’m living like an animal. I don’t have any heat. I don’t have any electricity,’” Burrelsman said. “And it was a cold November day.”

Burrelsman went to Semrau’s house, called Ameren Illinois and verified that his power had been turned off for more than a year. She said she paid about $250 to get it turned back on.

Burrelsman continued to help with Semrau’s monthly expenses. Eventually, she shared his plight with leaders of her former church, Edgemont Bible Church in Fairview Heights. They joined with nearby Grace Church to pay an overdue $800 water bill.

Burrelsman also contacted the Living Independently Now Center Inc. (LINC), a Swansea-based, non-profit organization that serves people with disabilities. A representative helped Semrau sign up for Social Security (about $850 a month) and food stamps.

His Social Security had lapsed five years earlier, after he failed to respond to a letter requesting information, according to Burrelsman.

Wood, a general contractor and carpenter who owns Woodchuck Construction, put a new roof on Semrau’s home, installed an air conditioner, replaced the toilet and two faucets and made other repairs.

“I have accepted Christ as my savior,” Wood said. “He’s the boss, as far as I’m concerned. I serve him. Whatever he needs me to do, I do. He provides the way, and I just am the person who does it, just like Moses and all the other prophets and servants.”

Wood said Semrau’s home was full of items that some people might call “junk,” but he was fairly neat and good about washing his dishes. He lived conservatively with few lights and no TV set.

Taxes quadrupled

Semrau bought the home on North Fourth Street for $25,900 in 1996, according to St. Clair County property records. He said he inherited the money from his mother, who died the same year.

Semrau later added the name of a friend, Marilyn Darnell, to the deed and never took it off. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

Semrau’s road to eviction began in 2015, when he stopped paying property taxes. They were “too high,” he said. County records show his annual bill had jumped from $340 to $1,506.

“My question is, how can someone’s taxes be low for years and then all of a sudden, they quadruple?” Wood said. “That is as unfair as you can be, especially for someone on a fixed income.”

Semrau’s tax records show that he had owner-occupied, homestead and “senior freeze” exemptions in 2014 but not 2015, and that’s why his bill went up, according to the assessor’s office.

Assessor Jennifer Gomric-Minton said Semrau was sent a renewal notice, but it came back marked “undeliverable” so the exemptions were removed.

“Typically, when that happens, somebody calls when they get their tax bill and says, ‘Why did my tax bill jump?’” she said. “And we’ll say, ‘Well, (the exemption) was not renewed.’ And then they come in and fill out the renewal, and we’ll correct the tax bill. But it looks like that never happened.”

The assessor’s office makes follow-up phone calls when exemptions aren’t renewed, Gomric-Minton said, but she isn’t sure if that happened in Semrau’s case.

The county placed a lien on Semrau’s home in 2016 due to non-payment of property taxes. But state law allows homeowners up to three years to pay back taxes and redeem ownership.

In addition, St. Clair County is one of the most lenient counties in Illinois when it comes to foreclosure, said Whitney Strohmeyer, president of Joseph E. Meyer & Associates, the Edwardsville-based company that serves as its trustee and delinquent-tax agent.

“The county doesn’t want to take their property,” he said. “We don’t evict people. We only move forward when we have to. We give people every opportunity. They simply have to make payments.”

By the time the county foreclosed on Semrau’s home in June 2020, he owed about $7,500 in back taxes. The trustee agreed to remove it from that year’s surplus-auction inventory after receiving a 20% down payment of $1,517. Semrau also began sending $100 a month.

The balance was due in six months, Strohmeyer said, but the Trustee Committee often allows an indefinite amount of extra time if people are making payments and returning every six months to request extensions.

A dumpster sits in front of a home at 520 N. Fourth St. in Belleville. A new owner evicted the resident, David Semrau, in late May after buying the property at a St. Clair County auction.
Teri Maddox
Belleville News-Democrat
A dumpster sits in front of a home at 520 N. Fourth St. in Belleville. A new owner evicted the resident, David Semrau, in late May after buying the property at a St. Clair County auction.

Auction in October

When Burrelsman and Wood learned of Semrau’s tax problems, they started working through LINC to try and save his home. The organization paid the $1,517 down payment in October 2020. A representative told the trustee’s office that Semrau had “severe autism,” according to his file.

Trustee records show that Semrau mailed in $100 a month for eight months then stopped. Burrelsman and Wood paid another down payment of $1,310 in August 2021 to get him back on track. Semrau made five more $100 payments before stopping again.

Burrelsman said she recalls someone mentioning that Semrau needed to go to a “tax meeting” at the St. Clair County Courthouse, but she can’t remember why he didn’t go. She regrets not being more proactive, even though she had no legal authority over his affairs.

“I’m not blaming LINC,” Burrelsman said. “They’ve been very helpful to us. But they’re not tax people, and I was ignorant. I should have looked into this myself.”

Burrelsman said she was stunned last summer, when a LINC representative told her that Semrau had to find other housing because the county wasn’t going to allow any more time for payment of back taxes, which then totaled about $6,000.

Strohmeyer said he isn’t sure where that information came from. Semrau’s home didn’t sell at auction until Oct. 14, 2022.

“Had Mr. Semrau, or someone on his behalf, come to the (Trustee Committee) meeting before the auction and requested more time, I’m sure it would have been granted,” Strohmeyer said.

Wood, who had spent $1,000 on Semrau’s back taxes and more than $5,000 on home improvements, said he wouldn’t have done it if he’d known Semrau was going to lose the property anyway.

In December, the LINC representative found an apartment for Semrau at a senior complex in Belleville, but he refused to go.

“I had a house with everything in it, with all my stuff,” Semrau said. “It was wintertime. It was cold. I was getting Social Security and food stamps. I had cash money in my bank. That’s why I didn’t leave my house.

“(The senior complex) had three meals a day. Maybe it’s a nursing home. Maybe you can’t get out of there.”

Tameka Brown, LINC’s executive director, said she couldn’t discuss the case due to the organization’s rules on client confidentially. Semrau agreed to sign a form giving her permission to speak to the BND, but he changed his mind when he got to her office.

“We promote independent living,” Brown said. “We are very opposed to institutional settings or our consumers being homeless, and we tried on several occasions to prevent this from happening to David. Unfortunately, we are here. Anything else, I cannot disclose.”

Suspected squatter

The Marnika Ann Ash Revocable Living Trust, based in Jacksonville, Florida, bought Semrau’s home for $10,300 at the county auction in October.

The BND reached a woman by phone who identified herself as the property manager. She declined to give her name, the owner’s name or their locations, but she said both serve in the military, and the owner, who grew up in Belleville, is away on deployment.

The owner planned to renovate the home, rent it out and return it to tax rolls that support schools, firefighters and roads, the property manager said, but she couldn’t go inside because a squatter was living there, and he had posted no-trespassing signs.

“The house was occupied by someone that was just basically taking the home for themselves with no maintenance, no payments, no taxes, none of that,” the property manager said.

When told that the occupant was a 77-year-old man with a disability who had owned the home for 24 years and lived in it for 27 years, the property manager seemed surprised. She noted that the county doesn’t provide that kind of information to auction buyers.

“We’re human, too, and we don’t do business like that,” she said.

The property manager said the new owner met all legal requirements of a months-long eviction process, and that Semrau failed to respond to multiple notices sent by certified mail and posted on the door, including some presenting the option of him staying and becoming a tenant.

The owner didn’t attempt to make personal contact with Semrau or look into his background, according to the property manager.

“He wouldn’t respond to official inquiries from the owner, and in the interim, the grass needed to be cut and other things needed to be done,” she said. “He wouldn’t allow anyone on the property, even though they had rightfully paid for it.”

“The owner was getting fines from the city because the property wasn’t being maintained,” the property manager said.

A manager of the Town House Motel in Belleville hands towels to Diane Burrelsman, a friend of guest David Semrau, right, who was evicted from his home. He’s very particular about cleanliness.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
A manager of the Town House Motel in Belleville hands towels to Diane Burrelsman, a friend of guest David Semrau, right, who was evicted from his home. He’s very particular about cleanliness.

Warning about grass

The Belleville department of health, housing and building issued one warning about tall grass at the home at 520 N. Fourth St. on May 17, according to Director Scott Tyler.

Tyler said he went to the home, knocked on the door and a man’s voice asked, “Who is it?” When Tyler replied “city of Belleville,” the man stayed silent. Tyler saw a rolling cart, assumed the occupant was elderly and checked to make sure he had running water and electricity.

Housing records show that city workers returned on May 24 to find the grass mowed, so no charges or fines were levied.

“It would have been different if he had been living in filth with no electricity or running water,” Tyler said. “Then we would have called Adult Protective Services or the Visiting Nurse Association to have them check on him and see if they could help. We do that all the time.

“As long as I’ve been here, (the city has) never gone in and evicted someone who’s in dire circumstances, unless there’s been a health problem or it’s a danger to the neighbors.”

Tyler said he called the home’s owner or property manager, who told him they were going through legal channels to remove a squatter.

The housing department’s only other complaint involving the home came on May 31, Tyler said. Someone reported that the front yard was filled with furniture and other belongings. Semrau had been evicted.

It’s not unusual for disabled people to lose their homes in the Belleville area, according to Joe Hubbard, former founding director of Catholic Urban Programs who now works with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He estimates that it happens about 20 times a year.

A common scenario is that parents or siblings die and leave homes to dependents with intellectual disabilities and mistakenly think they’re capable of paying bills and providing maintenance on their own.

With taxes in particular, Hubbard said, it takes a certain level of sophistication to understand legal notices and go to the St Clair County Courthouse to work out problems.

“There aren’t enough services,” Hubbard said. “Or people don’t apply for the services. They’re afraid of someone coming into their house. They think they’re going to get ripped off. They’re shy. They’re quiet. There are all kinds of reasons.”

David Senrau’s friends booked him a room at the Town House Motel in Belleville after he was evicted because rates are reasonable and it’s convenient to walk or catch a bus.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
David Senrau’s friends booked him a room at the Town House Motel in Belleville after he was evicted because rates are reasonable and it’s convenient to walk or catch a bus.

End of the line

What happened at 11 a.m. on May 31 is technically called a “set out,” according to Master Sgt. Adam Quirin, of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department. It comes at the end of an eviction process.

A property owner has to send a crew with a specified number of people, depending on a home’s size, to remove everything from inside and put it in the front yard. Items must remain in place 72 hours to give former tenants or squatters time to retrieve them.

“We do not touch anything (unless a gun is found),” Quirin said. “Our officers are there just so there’s a law-enforcement presence in case of a problem.”

Burrelsman said she went to Semrau’s property after the eviction, collected some of his clothes and documents, including his Social Security card and state ID, and gave other items to neighbors and a church thrift shop. Everything else ended up in a dumpster.

Burrelsman thought Semrau had an album of old family photos, but she couldn’t find it.

Today, Burrelsman’s biggest frustration is that people keep telling her about “resources” and giving her contact information for agencies and organizations that can help, yet nothing pans out due to waiting lists, eligibility requirements and other factors.

That doesn’t surprise Tyler, the housing director, who has run into problems himself when trying to assist people living under poor conditions due to a shortage of affordable housing.

“We don’t want to put them on the street by any means, but we don’t have anywhere to go with them,” he said.

Several people have suggested that Burrelsman take Semrau to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless shelter in East St. Louis, but it’s temporarily closed this summer for renovation and, even if it were open, she’s not sure he would do well in that environment.

Wood has spent about $2,500 on motel-room charges. If something doesn’t change soon, Burrelsman said, they will be forced to take Semrau to a hospital with a psychiatric unit and drop him off, risking the possibility that he will end up back on the streets.

Burrelsman said she has no regrets about helping Semrau, even though he can be uncooperative and combative at times.

Like Wood, she points to her faith.

“What kind of person would I be if I tell people that I believe in Jesus Christ, and then I actually don’t do what the Bible says?” Burrelsman asked. “I can’t say, ‘I know you’re disabled and you’re a senior, but I’ll just pray for you,’ when I know that nobody else is going to help this guy.”

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.