Volunteers out of options for 78-year-old homeless Belleville man with cognitive disability
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
David Semrau is about to become homeless — again.
The 78-year-old man with a cognitive disability has been staying at the Town House Motel in Belleville off and on since early June. He was evicted from his home after it was sold at auction due to delinquent property taxes.
Initially, Semrau’s motel bills were being paid by two area residents who saw it as their Christian duty to help. For the past three months, the money has come from two GoFundMe campaigns set up for him.
But those funds have run out, and the volunteers haven’t been able to find permanent housing for Semrau. They’re planning to take him to a homeless shelter or hospital with a psychiatric unit, despite their belief he won’t stay and is likely to end up back on the streets.
“We don’t feel like we have a choice,” said Diane Burrelsman, 49, of Maryville, a scheduler at a St. Louis hospital.
Burrelsman, who isn’t related to Semrau, has been helping him for about six years with everything from grocery shopping to government paperwork, spending hundreds of dollars along the way. She said she may be moving out of state and won’t always be able to look after him.
Another helper is Chuck Wood, 60, a general contractor in Belleville. He formerly attended church with Burrelsman, who met Semrau in 2017 when she was working at Belleville Public Library and learned that his electricity had been turned off for months.
Since that time, Wood has spent thousands of dollars to help with Semrau’s bills, taxes and repairs and even put a new roof on his home before St. Clair County foreclosed last year.
“That’s what the spirit of God does for you,” Wood said.
In recent weeks, Burrelsman has made dozens of phone calls to find housing and other services, with help from Nolan Ferguson, 52, a real-estate investor in University City, Missouri. He got involved in August after reading about Semrau’s case in the BND.
Their patience has been tested by what they describe as public and private agencies and organizations that claim to provide a “safety net” for elderly people and those with cognitive disabilities but allow many to fall through the cracks due to bureaucratic red tape.
“You literally believe there are services to help with these situations until you actually try to get the services,” Ferguson said last week.
'He just doesn't understand'
Semrau bought the small home at 520 N. Fourth St. in Belleville 27 years ago, when his mother died and left him an inheritance. He stopped paying property taxes in 2015. The annual bill had quadrupled after he neglected to fill out a renewal form for his three exemptions.
The home was sold in a St. Clair County tax auction in October 2022. The new owner evicted him on May 31 and began renovations.
The BND published a story in August that revealed a series of breakdowns in a system that struggles to deal with people, such as Semrau, who don’t fit into traditional society or follow its rules.
Ferguson was so moved, he drove to Belleville, paid $385 for a week of motel charges and set up a GoFundMe campaign for Semrau, not knowing that Burrelsman already was setting one up.
Dozens of area residents donated money, and many offered suggestions. But many of the leads went nowhere, and Semrau sabotaged the few opportunities that came his way, according to the volunteers.
“We realized that the biggest problem was that (David) would have to agree,” Ferguson said.
Many senior housing complexes have one- or two-year waiting lists. At one assisted-living center, Semrau balked at signing over most of his $921 monthly Social Security check for rent, meals and other services. At another, he wouldn’t agree to take medication for his diabetes and high blood pressure, as required.
The office of Illinois U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, offered to help Semrau find housing, but he refused to give a caseworker written permission to advocate on his behalf.
“He just doesn’t understand,” said Burrelsman, who believes Semrau has a form of autism and possibly the beginnings of dementia.
“No matter what you say, it doesn’t register,” Ferguson added.
During a BND interview this summer, Semrau recalled spending time in mental-health facilities as a younger man but wasn’t clear about the diagnosis. Divorced with two sons, he’s been estranged from family for decades.
Last week, Semrau had lunch with Burrelsman, Wood and Ferguson. A reporter asked him who had been paying for his motel room the past few months. “A government grant,” he answered.
When the volunteers reminded Semrau that they had paid the bills, he became agitated and shouted, “I don’t believe that! The truth is, the hotel room is free for me because I’m a senior on medication. I’m disabled. It’s free for everyone because it’s a government place. Poor people come in there all day long.”
Semrau then described Burrelsman, Wood and Ferguson as “useless.” He later added, “I don’t like people because they do you dirty,” and “I’m free. I’m not a slave.”
Guardianship not likely
Burrelsman and Wood initially considered buying Semrau a mobile home in Belleville, but that idea fell through when GoFundMe donations didn’t go up that high, and they realized that independent living would require some type of continuous outside assistance.
Burrelsman, Wood and Ferguson point out that they’re not trained or legally authorized to deal with Semrau’s issues. They feel someone with more expertise needs to intervene.
Wood said he finally went to an attorney “out of desperation” to see if Semrau could be declared a ward of the state, but that didn’t happen.
“(The attorney) said that’s not really what the state does for someone like him,” Wood said, noting that Semrau isn’t bedridden or helpless, and he doesn’t want to be told what to do.
The two GoFundMe campaigns raised $4,536. All the money has gone for motel bills, according to Burrelsman and Ferguson. The Town House charges $55 a night for Semrau’s room. He’s paid up until Nov. 15.
The three volunteers don’t think Semrau can take care of himself without help, given that his decision-making allowed his electricity to be shut off for months, his Social Security to lapse for years and his belongings to get thrown out in the front yard as part of the eviction.
After Semrau lived on the streets for a week, Burrelsman found him at a bus stop with his shirt off, shaving his head.
“David has shot down any good chance of finding housing,” she wrote in a summary for the attorney that Wood consulted. “He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t make good decisions that are in his best interest, and if he doesn’t get a state guardian, he is going to be homeless.
“In many ways, David is like a child. I would be afraid for him.”
Ferguson said he’s dealt with similar problems involving his 84-year-old father, who is headstrong and sometimes uncooperative due to dementia. One difference is that Ferguson has power of attorney and therefore can oversee financial and legal matters.
After Semrau’s story went public, his family reached out and asked not to be identified in fundraising efforts, according to Ferguson.
The volunteers don’t know what led to the estrangement or if Semrau’s cognitive disability played a part. Police, social-service agency representatives and others have reported him behaving oddly, sometimes aggressively, leading to charges in some cases and jail time after skipped court dates.
Burrelsman, Wood and Ferguson see Semrau’s situation as part of a larger homeless problem in the United States.
“The majority of homeless people are dealing with issues of addiction or mental illness, and that isn’t being addressed, ” Burrelsman said. “If it doesn’t get addressed, the problem is just going to get worse.”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.