Squatters Ignore Crackdown

December 16, 1992|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

The housing authority police officers sensed danger on Monday as they prepared to enter a 12th-floor apartment in Flag House Courts, a troubled East Baltimore public housing complex.

But when they burst into the room with pistols drawn, they discovered a trespasser sleeping on blankets in a corner of the room. A search of the room turned up a bag of syringes and other drug paraphernalia. The suspect, a homeless man, was charged with breaking and entering and trespassing.

Last week, police evicted squatters from the same vacant unit and one across the hall.

On Monday the apartment across the hall was still littered with used syringes, bloody rags and crack vials, and the air hung heavy with the stench from a backed up toilet.

Since May, housing authority police have been waging a running battle with squatters. Officials say the problem intensifies during the winter, when homeless people and drug abusers seek shelter in vacant apartments.

As soon as the police evict the squatters, maintenance crews are often confronted with another problem: cleaning up drug paraphernalia, blood and other bodily fluids that may be contaminated by the AIDS virus and other diseases.

To protect themselves, the workers wear boots and gloves and they use a special device to pick up discarded syringes.

"I am afraid to go in there [vacant units] -- there are a lot of drug needles," said Robert Pope, a carpenter who boards up the vacant units at Flag House. "They [squatters] leave quite a terrible mess -- they knock holes in the wall, mess in the toilet and don't flush, turn the water on in the sink and leave it on for days. I don't know why they do it, but they do."

Last week, housing authority police entered 41 units at Flag House and arrested seven trespassers. Police found 65 caplets of suspected cocaine in one apartment. Many of the others had been vandalized, and they reeked of vomit and urine, a housing authority spokesman said.

The crackdown on squatters and drug dealers in Flag House and three other high-rise public housing developments -- Lafayette Courts, George B. Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace Apartments -- has turned into an ongoing battle for the housing authority police.

The police say they are arresting the same squatters over and over again. For example, James Floyd, the homeless man arrested at Flag House on Monday, had been arrested for trespassing there less than a week earlier.

"It's frustrating having to arrest people again and again," said authority police officer Sherman Crowder, who made Monday's arrest. "Many times, you don't know what's in there. Sometimes, there are two or three people in the vacant unit, including some drug dealers. You really don't know what you're up against."

Drug-related violence has been a long-standing problem at Flag House Courts and the other complexes. In September, city police Officer James E. Young Jr. was shot in a Flag House Courts high-rise during a confrontation with drug dealers. And last summer, a sniper pinned down 10 city police officers at Flag House and an armored car was used to rescue them.

One high-rise resident said she is sick of the squatters and the problems they cause.

"These people are a threat," said Theresa Dawkins, 27, a resident of Flag House Courts who fears for the safety of her three children because of the vandals and drug dealers who takeover the vacant apartments. "This place is not safe for the kids -- the kids see all of them and then they go in there. There is no telling what can happen."

Housing authority officials hope the trespassing will be curbed by the installation of computer-coded steel turnstiles at the front doors of all the high-rises. But all the turnstiles have not yet been installed.

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