Margaret Peters wanted desperately to move out of the room she rented in a rundown, dirty, condemned apartment building in East Bayside – a place she said was unsafe.

But she never got the chance.

The lack of options for low-income people in Portland’s hot housing market left her no choice but to stay for the time being and even fight an eviction order issued after the city condemned the three-unit building at 31 East Oxford St. because of excessive police calls about drug activity and other problems. She preferred to stay in the apartment she described as “nasty” while she looked for a new place, rather than return to the city’s crowded homeless shelter, she said at the time.

On the evening of July 7, the 56-year-old was found dead in the apartment she so desperately wanted to leave.

The news came a day after her attorney, Katie McGovern, won Peters a one-month stay on her eviction so she could continue searching for a new place to live. But with demand for apartments in Maine’s largest city so strong, she struggled to find a landlord who would accept a housing voucher instead of renting to tenants who could pay historically high market rates.

“I was very saddened, knowing she spent the last days of her life in those terrible conditions of the building – it was heartbreaking,” McGovern said. “She definitely deserved to be in a better place.”

Police say Peters had been dead for days before being discovered by her landlord, Clark Stephens. Officials do not believe the death was suspicious, but they are still trying to determine a cause.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office examined her body and is conducting further tests, including a toxicology screening, even though people who knew her said she was not known to have substance abuse or health issues.

Peters was known as Maggie by those in the social services community who were trying to help her. She was someone who was willing to stand up for herself and had a salty sense of humor, and was always running into people she knew as she walked around the city’s downtown.

Peters was featured in a June 26 Portland Press Herald story about her struggles in the city’s housing market as she faced eviction for a second time.

She had been receiving disability benefits and other services through a local agency that works with people who have mental illness, although the reason she qualified for disability is not clear. The agency that worked with her has declined to comment, and others who knew her said they weren’t aware of a specific mental illness diagnosis.

In an interview a few weeks before her death, Peters did not describe her disability and said she didn’t have mental illness as far as she knew.

FORMER CAB DRIVER, HAS DAUGHTER

Peters said she grew up in South Portland. According to a South Portland High School yearbook, Margaret A. Yankowsky, apparently her maiden name, was a member of the class of 1979 and a singer in the school chorus. It was her only listed extracurricular activity.

Peters said she moved to Portland about 35 years ago and worked for a short time as a cab driver with her husband, a job that allowed her to get to know the city well. She said she never returned to work after giving birth to her daughter. She also got a divorce.

Peters said her daughter is now 16 years old and living in Westbrook with an aunt. But she never provided the names of her daughter or ex-husband, and police would not provide any information about next-of-kin. It was not clear if family members were making arrangements for a funeral, although no obituary was prepared and sent to the Press Herald.

Peters said she had struggled with homelessness in the past, including a two-year stint at Preble Street, when the nonprofit social services provider used to convert its day shelter into an emergency overnight shelter for women. Preble Street now operates day shelters and a soup kitchen in Bayside.

After a relatively stable period in an apartment on Grant Street in Parkside – albeit in substandard conditions – her life was upended when she was evicted, for no cause. The owner evicted a number of tenants in order to fix up the building and charge higher rents.

She ended up at East Oxford Street in an effort to stay out of the homeless shelter.

“None of us thought of it as a stable or permanent location for her to live,” said Jan Bindas-Tenney, Preble Street’s advocacy director. “East Oxford Street was a last-ditch effort so she didn’t go back to the shelter.”

STRANGERS AND LIVING IN FEAR

Peters said in an interview that she lived in fear on East Oxford Street. Her door locks didn’t work and strangers were constantly coming and going in the building. She said she had been warned about people drinking and doing drugs in the hallways, and she would hear physical altercations just outside the door of the room she rented.

Peters discussed her apartment with a tired resignation. She did not want to be interviewed at the apartment because she was afraid, she said. She suggested Dunkin’ Donuts, and showed up wearing a white T-shirt that said “missed breakfast?” before ordering a breakfast sandwich and vanilla iced coffee and talking about her home.

“They’d bust the windows and smash out the wall,” she said about the strangers that let themselves into the building. “It is nasty. Everything is falling apart. But we had no other place to go.”

Peters did not show up for a crucial court appearance July 6. She was fighting the latest eviction notice so she could have more time to find a new place.

Her absence worried McGovern, her attorney. During court recess, McGovern went to Maggie’s apartment building. But she was warned by a neighbor not to go inside the building out of fear of stepping on discarded drug needles on the floor.

McGovern learned the next day that Peters had been found dead. Police would later say she died days earlier.

SUPPORT FROM SOCIAL SERVICES

Peters had been living at 31 East Oxford St. for a little over a year.

She ended up there after she and other low-income tenants were kicked out of three apartment buildings at 61-69 Grant St. in Parkside when they were sold and the new owner wanted to upgrade the units and charge higher rents.

She was the last of those tenants to find a new home, according to caseworkers at Preble Street.

Peters said a Shelter Care Plus housing voucher from Shalom House, a local nonprofit that works with people who have mental illness, paid 70 percent of her rent. She paid the balance using her $735 a month in Social Security disability benefits.

A Shalom House representative declined to discuss Peters, saying in an email that the agency “will not provide any comment regarding this matter.”

Peters’ caseworker at Preble Street said she had lost the disability benefits about a month before her death because she had not updated her address from her recent move. He was trying to help her get them back.

Bindas-Tenney, Preble Street’s advocacy director, said it was difficult to see Peters get evicted twice in one year because of forces beyond her control. Bindas-Tenney lamented that there aren’t more options for low-income people like Peters, who had been looking for a new apartment for much of the past year.

“A lot of the apartments in this price range are not well-maintained,” she said. “They don’t have the level of security and safety that people with serious medical and mental health conditions need. I think the city has a duty to protect people like Maggie.”

For most of her residency in East Bayside, 31 East Oxford St. had been designated by the city as a disorderly house based on an excessive number of police calls for suspected drug activity, terrorizing and non-residents refusing to leave.

That building, as well as 32-34 East Oxford St., which is across the street and owned by Stephens, were also known to code officers, who have responded to complaints about excess trash buildup, bedbugs, a lack of heat and water, and a leaky roof.

The 31 East Oxford St. building was condemned by the city after Stephens allegedly failed to comply with a court order to screen his tenants and turn over management to a private company. The order to condemn was the first time the city had taken such drastic action against a so-called disorderly house. City officials said they did not want to force the evictions, but had to in the interest of public safety, including the safety of people living there.

RELATIONSHIPS AT PREBLE STREET

News of Peters’ death shocked those who helped her. She was a fixture at Preble Street, which plans to hold a memorial for Peters at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the soup kitchen.

“Everyone is really surprised and shocked and sad. Maggie had a lot of relationships here,” Bindas-Tenney said.

Several staffers said they were not aware of Peters having any serious health problems, and specifically noted that Peters generally walked around the city with ease.

Ashish Shrestha, a caseworker at Preble Street, had been working with Peters for the past two months.

Shrestha said he tried to enter the building with Peters in June and visit her room, but when an unidentified man noticed his Preble Street badge, he slammed the door. After 40 minutes of futile attempts to get in, he and Peters left, Shrestha said.

Shrestha last saw Peters a few days before he went on vacation June 29.

He had noticed that she had been spending more time than usual at Preble Street. There, she would use the phone to call about apartments, or simply hang out at the front desk to talk with staff. She would come to the soup kitchen for dinner and be among the last to leave.

“The last I remember of her, she was sitting on the chair, just as we got off the phone and we were closing up the resource center,” Shrestha said. “She was sitting on one of the only remaining chairs left out there.”

Peters apparently stumbled when getting up from that chair, he said, so workers got her some ice for the right side of her face, but after a short while she seemed fine and left on her own. A bed bug was observed on her right shoulder, he said.

Despite the evictions and other struggles, Peters didn’t seem to lose hope, Shrestha said.

“She was also very sassy,” he said. “She had a great sense of humor.”

CAUSE OF DEATH UNDER REVIEW

It’s still not clear what caused Peters’ death.

Portland Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch said police do not suspect anything criminal about her death. However, he declined last week to discuss other details included in the police report, saying they are part of an investigation.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office said it has ruled out “suspicious circumstances,” but a cause of death has not yet been determined. “An examination has been completed and the case is pending further studies, including toxicology,” Mark Belserene, the office administrator, said last week.

Shrestha, Bindas-Tenney and McGovern said Peters was not known to have substance abuse issues or serious health problems.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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