Child of the projects grows up to give her young a warm haven there

BUILDING A LIFE IN MURPHY HOMES A

April 07, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

Rose Marie Fletcher doesn't sleep well at night. She closes her eyes and dozes on and off, but her mind never rests.

Some nights, the mother of three youngsters wonders how she's going to buy groceries or pay the rent. Other times, Rose is haunted by the sight of young boys she's seen killed in her neighborhood and worries about losing her children to drugs.

Or she wonders whether she'll ever have anything more -- a husband, a car, a stone house on a quiet, tree-lined street.

To comfort herself, she'll get out of bed and pace through her four-bedroom apartment, looking in on her children -- Ricky Jamel Broadway, 13, Ebony Shakia Williams, 9, and Nakia Nicole Williams, 4 -- soundly sleeping beneath soft, pastel-colored comforters.

Silently, she'll tidy up their bedrooms while they sleep -- putting away Jamel's Nintendo and her daughters' Barbie dolls, and rewinding the video they had watched on the VCR.

But the tranquillity within the walls of her home is often shattered by the sounds of gunfire, police sirens and helicopters outside. Peeking through the peach lace curtains on her kitchen window, she can see school-age drug dealers being pushed into the back of police patrol wagons and school-age mothers carrying their children in one arm and a bottle of beer in the other.

At the age of 29, a resident of the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex for virtually her entire life, Rose feels her hopes slipping away.

She has made a decent life for herself and her family, but it is not the life she imagined she would have as a child -- something out of "The Cosby Show," with her working as an attorney and living in a comfortable apartment with a fun-loving husband and several children.

With no high school diploma, she found a low-skill job to try to get out of Murphy Homes and free herself from the clutches of welfare. But the pay was so low in the winter when her hours were cut in half that she found herself in even more dire straits. Within months she was back on welfare, her expectations diminished, her confidence shaken, her spirit crushed.

Now, the thought of leaving Murphy Homes scares her more than staying.

"In public housing, if I lose my job or get into money problems, they will lower my rent," she says. "But in the real world, I'd be out on the street."

Rose is one of 40,000 Baltimoreans who live in public housing -- commonly referred to as the projects. Those words conjure up images of people cowering behind locked doors, of young children dealing drugs on playgrounds, of senseless murders, bare cinder block walls, gray cement floors and smells of trash and urine.

For the past year, Rose has shared her life with The Sun to permit a look behind those images. The expectation was that stereotypes would be shattered and what emerged would be a portrait of a family not unlike the middle-class readers of this newspaper.

The reality was different, the result mixed.

Murphy Homes, a sprawling complex in West Baltimore, is home to nearly 2,000 people. It is a cluster of a dozen two-story brick town houses, separated by small patches of grass, and four 14-story high-rises that tower over rundown playgrounds. A rickety gazebo sits in the middle of the complex -- the last vestige of the old Perkins Spring Square -- and on weekends tenants gather there to trade or sell old clothing and appliances.

In many ways, Rose fits the statistical profile of her neighbors and others who live in public housing across Baltimore.

More than 90 percent of all public housing tenants in Baltimore are black. Half of them have lived there more than 10 years.

Like many other tenants, Rose is a single mother who grew up in public housing, dropped out of high school and fell into welfare. Close to 45 percent of the public housing households are headed by single mothers with at least two children under age 12. Their average annual gross income is $6,700 -- most of it from welfare -- and they pay 30 percent of their income for rent.

Rose pays $100 a month for rent in a two-story, four-bedroom apartment in the same courtyard where she grew up with her mother, three sisters and a brother.

She was born on June 5, 1961, in Lancaster, Va., the third of Raymond and Hazel Fletcher's five children. Hazel, who was 18 when Rose was born, had grown up in Lancaster, a sleepy farming town on the peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, and had returned there from Baltimore to be with relatives when she gave birth to Rose.

Raymond was a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership in Baltimore, and the best the family could afford on his salary was a one-bedroom apartment in the 900 block of North Fulton Avenue. But the arrival of a fourth child in 1964 made that apartment unbearably small. Hazel applied for public housing just a few months after the brand new Murphy Homes opened, less than a mile from her flat.

She was offered a three-bedroom unit there for $32 a month, and Hazel jumped at the chance to move in.

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