When I asked her how she knew it was human waste, she exclaimed, "The toilet paper was still attached!"
Her neighbors, who bred dogs inside the home, said they had plumbing issues. They promised never to dump feces again. But other neighbors said the home had no running water and they routinely saw them dumping excrement.
"It's human waste," said Horace Day, who lives a couple of doors down. "I'm a retired SEPTA maintenance worker so you can believe I know what I smell."
As recently as a few months ago, one of Mills' grandchildren saw buckets full of feces when one of the tenants opened the front door. Records from the city's 3-1-1 help line show at least seven calls between 2007 and 2010 from neighbors calling to report unsanitary conditions, including a front drain clogged with feces and other raw waste.
"Waste is running onto the pavement and into caller's yard," states one complaint.
"This is affecting the health of the neighbors," another complaint states.
Mills is convinced of that. She and a few of her grandchildren have respiratory issues. She had hoped that when the tenants moved out recently, she could breathe again. But the disruption of the move just kicked up an even worse odor.
"I just can't take it anymore," she said when she called.
As we talked on her porch Wednesday, she kept a hand firmly pressed over her nose. Each time a breeze caught the stench, we'd both pause, breathless.
"I told you," she said, pinching her nose. "It takes your breath away."
Besides complaining to city agencies, Mills said her husband went to nearby Sumo Steaks to talk with the owners of the home. But they never responded.
Other than a brief call where one of owners denied owning the home, they didn't respond to my calls or visits either.
City records show William and Gary Creagh own both the foul-smelling home, which they bought in 2010, and the steak shop, nearby on 22nd Street.
The two also own numerous other properties in city - several with past or outstanding Licenses & Inspections violations - and together owe about $60,000 in back taxes.
This isn't the first time one of the Creaghs' properties was plagued with a stench. In 2011, court records and a Courthouse News Service article show that William Creagh noticed an "ungodly" odor coming from a tenant's apartment at 106 Chestnut St. He discovered the tenant's decomposing corpse collapsed over his toilet.
Creagh later claimed that he needed medical treatment and could not sleep after his "extreme exposure." He unsuccessfully sued his insurance company for corpse-cleanup costs.
Mills knows something about extreme exposure. She scours her front porch with ammonia and Pine-Sol when the grandkids, ages 2 to 11, need a little fresh air. But the temporary fix lasts only a few minutes before the stench punches through the pine barrier.
"No one should live like this," Mills said.
L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said the owners, whom he also identified as the Creaghs, would be sent to Equity Court for failing to make the home safe. In addition to plumbing and sewage issues, the house has a deteriorated roof and a bulging porch wall. A tree is growing into the back of the home.
Williams acknowledged that the case had lingered for too long. A result of limited manpower, he said. But he said his department was committed to dealing with it.
"This has been sitting for a couple of years, which is absolutely too long," he said. "Obviously, this is a major community issue."
Scott Mulderig, chief of L&I's Emergency Services and Abatement unit, said he did not notice the smell. But the property was reclassified as unsafe during an inspection a couple of days after my visit with Mills.
Carlton said no permits had been issued for repairs on the derelict home, but Friday a crew suddenly showed up to haul junk away from inside as neighbors watched. They padlocked the front door and haphazardly boarded up a couple of the windows, which neighbors said had been missing glass panes for years.
The crew wouldn't say who hired them to do the work, but it was not the city.
"I've smelled worse," one of the workers said. He wore a mask. Besides dog feces, the men said they didn't find anything else to explain the smell. But they hadn't gone through the whole house.
Mills was glad about the progress, but she wasn't there to see it. She was in the hospital with more respiratory issues. She was still there when I called to check on her yesterday.
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