BOSTON -- Alma Singleton, 73, once played cards every evening in the community room at the Codman Apartments, a six-story public housing complex for the elderly.
"We'd play poker, we'd have little parties, there were always people down here," said Ms. Singleton, a retired waitress who has lived at Codman for eight years.
But the Codman community, like public housing for the elderly in dozens of other cities, has been splintered in recent years by a huge influx of younger disabled people, many of them with chronic mental illness or drug or alcohol problems, who are placed among the elderly because they have nowhere else to go. More than a quarter of the Codman residents -- and more than half the tenants moving in -- are now younger disabled people.
Public housing officials around the country say the mix of fragile older people and younger people with mental disabilities has proved volatile. They report problems ranging from assaults, thefts and fires to thousands of everyday clashes.
There is no single explanation for the sea change in the population of the nation's 375,000 public housing units for the elderly. Rather, it results from a combination of aggressive advocacy on behalf of the homeless, the continuing removal of mental patients from institutions, and a policy of including people with chronic mental illness, recovering alcoholics and addicts among those considered "disabled" under housing laws.
Nationwide, about a quarter of the residents in public housing for the elderly are now younger disabled people, said Gordon Mansfield, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. He estimates that half the applicants now on waiting lists for apartments designed for the elderly are younger disabled people, most of them mentally ill or drug or alcohol abusers.
And the concentration is increasing, since applicants who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless -- many of whom are mentally ill or drug or alcohol abusers -- have priority over senior citizens who have spent years on the waiting list.
"It's a disaster," said William McGonagle, deputy administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. "We're pitting two very poor and very vulnerable segments of our society against each other. It's a bad mix, and it's not fair to either population."