In Toms River: A house condemned, but not a life

Toms River officials declared Larry Hecker’s home unsuitable for habitation. The 76-year-old is homeless while a group of goodwill ambassadors try to help. Jerry Carino

Larry Hecker’s home, career and health went to shambles. People of good will are trying to pick up the pieces.

 

TOMS RIVER — There is no nice way to put this: Larry Hecker’s house is a wreck. The two-bedroom ranch on Division Street is strewn with trash, dirty clothes and countless papers. The roof leaks. There are three huge holes in the siding.

During my visit last week, a squirrel scurried out of a gaping hole in the eaves as Hecker and I talked.

And this was after some volunteers began cleaning the place. They filled eight extra-large bags and five cans with garbage.

“I can’t bend down,” said Hecker, who is 76 and saddled with myriad medical problems. “I can’t pick things up. Crap just accumulated.”

Three weeks ago, Toms River’s division of housing and property maintenance declared the house unfit for occupancy. Hecker can access it during the day when volunteers from a local church and nonprofit are working there.

At night, he sleeps in his sedan.

“It’s awful,” Hecker said. “You ever try to sleep in your car, on a cold night, with a bad back?”

Through a confluence of developments, some self-inflicted and some not, Larry Hecker fell. The community is trying to help him up.

A damaged life

A fading sign in front of the house reads, “Laurence A. Hecker, Counselor at Law.”

Hecker served as a general practice attorney for 45 years, first out of Keyport and later Toms River. His record contains multiple ethics violations.

In 1988, he was suspended from practicing for six months after he was ordered to repay Toms River $110,000 for overcharging the township in legal fees. In 2001, he was suspended for three months for negligence and failure to supervise an assistant who was stealing funds from a client’s estate. His career ended in 2010 after a collection agency that operated under his name — but was run by others, according to court documents — encountered numerous legal problems.

“I went bankrupt,” Hecker said.

His declining health compounded the troubles. Hecker said he’s undergone multiple back and heart surgeries. His bedroom is lined with bottles of prescription pills — too many to count.

“It’s a story of somebody whose life really has been damaged at some point,” said Paul Gifford, pastor of First Assembly of God Church in Toms River. “When I heard his story and went into his house, I felt we needed to come alongside the project and help establish hope in his life.”

Gifford and Paul Hulse of Haven/Beat the Street, a nonprofit that helps those facing homelessness in Ocean and Atlantic counties, are leading a volunteer effort to render Hecker’s home habitable. The goal is to have Hecker move back in temporarily until they can find him a permanent residence in an affordable senior-living community.

“That’s really what it’s all about: showing compassion to our neighbors,” Gifford said. “He’s very grateful and appreciative of the people who are helping him out.”

‘People fall in the gaps’

Hecker connected with Gifford and Hulse through the Ocean County Board of Social Services, which determined him ineligible for most types of emergency assistance because he’s not collecting any form of public aid. His income is $1,715 per month from Social Security, much of which goes toward medication, Medicare Supplement Insurance and his car.

“People fall in the gaps,” said Hulse, who said the board is limited by state regulations that outline eligibility. “Yes we have 60 (emergency assistance) services here in Ocean County but if they don’t meet the criteria of those 60 services, they wind up like Larry is right now.”

Speaking broadly, board administrator Meredith Sheehan told me social services tries to find help for those who need it but don’t qualify. Hecker said they arranged a consultation with a social worker and a few nights’ stay in a motel. He also got what Hulse described as “a small grant” from the state to assist the cleanup.

Still, there is much to be done. Gifford and Hulse are seeking volunteers to join the cleanup crew and contractors willing to donate some repair work.

It takes a lot of hands to fix a wreck.

“We will get this place back up,” Gifford said. “Hopefully it will help his life get straightened out.”

Paul Hulse of Haven/Beat the Streets can be reached at 386-315-0168 or through the websitewww.havenstreets.org

Carino’s Corner appears Mondays in the Asbury Park Press. Contact Jerry at jcarino@gannettnj.com