Many elderly living golden years in fear of becoming victims Some are prisoners in their homes. They fear moving, too.

December 17, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

She is 75. He is 77. They have lived in the same house on McHenry Street in southwest Baltimore since 1942.

But they will not allow their address to be printed in the newspaper. They will not allow their names to be used.

They say that if they were quoted by name in this story about elderly people's fear of crime, they might become victims themselves. A neighborhood drug dealer, or the prostitute who solicits customers from their front steps, might take offense at their comments and torch their house.

Like many elderly people living in the city, they are spending what should be their golden years in fear of the dark, far-reaching shadows of crime. At night, they bolt themselves behind locked doors as if they were their own jailers.

Even the senior centers where many elderly people spend their days seldom schedule activities later than 2 or 3 p.m. The seniors won't come; they are afraid of going home after dark.

"They deserve better," says Clarice LaV Brooks, community relations specialist with the Baltimore Police Department. "They have given a lot to society. But this is the way of the world now."

Part of Brooks' job is organizing activities for senior citizens. She has not scheduled an event at night for years, she says. She used to throw a gala dinner party at Christmas for seniors until about 1984, when she changed it to a luncheon.

In a series of recent interviews, elderly people say they have had to adapt to a changing world of encroaching crime and violence. They shop, go to the hairdresser and visit friends during the day. Some won't ever go out at night; others will on special occasions, but only if a friend or taxi driver watches them walk in and out of their front door safely.

Sgt. Robert Lassahn, who works in the police department's crime resistance unit, says elderly people are not victimized any more or less frequently than the general population. But they believe they are especially vulnerable because of their age and frailties, he says.

"They turn on the television and see the bloodstains on the

sidewalk," Lassahn says. "That brings home the message. I think it's gotten that way for most everybody."

Betty Townsend, director of the Southwest Senior Center, remembers when blood stained the sidewalk outside the center at Calhoun and Lombard streets. A delivery man was robbed and shot to death during the day at a sandwich shop across the street, she says.

People from the center looked outside at the body, Townsend says, but showed little reaction. Such sights are almost commonplace in some parts of the city, she says.

Townsend, 63, rented a house in the 1600 block of Hollins St., two blocks from the center, when she took the job as director in 1980. In the five years she lived there, she says, she was held up at gunpoint twice on her front steps.

"That was not unique," she says. "All my neighbors had been robbed."

She moved to Hunting Ridge in far western Baltimore, where she has lived peaceably ever since.

She says an 86-year-old man who came regularly to the center recently stopped coming. A social worker visited him to see what was wrong. The man lives alone. His house had been broken into, and he had become disoriented and afraid of leaving, afraid someone would break in again.

"He's literally a prisoner," Townsend says. "He wouldn't even go to his daughter's for Thanksgiving."

Social workers are trying to figure out how best to help him.

"These things unfortunately are not unique," Townsend says. "Who around here hasn't been mugged or their house broken into?

"It's sad. It's not the material things you lose. It's your peace of mind."

The husband and wife at the beginning of this story had peace of mind when they moved into their rowhouse 49 years ago. They moved from rural Pennsylvania so he could work as a welder at the shipyards during the war.

They raised four children, all of whom moved out of the neighborhood and now fear coming back to visit. One daughter, who lives in Carroll County, bought a big house so her parents could move in.

"I hate to see them living there," the daughter says.

You never feel safe on their street, she says. You're always looking over your shoulder.

"We often ask, 'When are you coming out?' " the daughter says. "And they always answer, 'Well, we're thinking about it.' "

They're still thinking about it, the mother says. They will move out there, she says, when her husband can't walk up and down the steps anymore. He says he is ready to move now.

"If I had my druthers, I'd move clear out of the city," he says. "I'd move where you can go for a walk at night and leave things outside."

Another daughter wants to cut them a Christmas tree. She asked whether it would be OK to leave it in the backyard a few days until she could decorate it.

Her mother told her: "If you chain it fast it might stay."

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