Some city families look to MTO as door to better life

October 04, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

They've never been to Owings Mills, but the idea of moving there sits just fine with 14-year-old twins Harold E. Henry III and Frank J. Henry.

For them, life in suburbia would be far better than the danger zone they now call home: the Douglass Homes housing development in East Baltimore.

"I think it's good, because we wouldn't have to worry about hearing no shooting or stuff," Harold said of the prospect of moving from Douglass Homes, where dealers have tried to recruit him as a foot soldier on the enemy side of the drug war.

Frank said he'd move almost anywhere. "As long as it's not in the projects."

So the twins are 100 percent behind their father's efforts to be selected for the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, a federal initiative that will help 285 families in Baltimore's housing projects live in communities where there is far less poverty and far more hope.

They and their father, Harold E. Henry Jr., are among 850 families in public housing in the city vying to be picked for MTO. Other families are those of Marie Wells, 35, the mother of two, and Cheryl Zigler, 34, who has three children. All are desperate to escape the projects.

Baltimore is one of five cities selected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for MTO, which aims to break the cycle of despair for public housing dwellers by subsidizing up to 100 percent of their rent with Section 8 money.

Participants may elect to move across town or to any area in the United States that has a poverty rate of 10 percent or less.

MTO has drawn opposition from Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, other candidates for public office in Baltimore County and residents of the county's eastern side who contend that the city is conspiring with the federal government to dump its worst problems in the suburbs.

The younger Harold Henry had not heard those criticisms of the program. When told about them, he remarked, "It's ignorant, really."

His father agreed.

"Everybody's entitled to have a decent house. Nobody's better than anybody else," said Mr. Henry, the son of a retired career Army man and himself an Army veteran.

He has custody of his sons. He also has two adult daughters -- ages 18 and 20. All four children are products of his marriage with his estranged wife.

Mr. Henry, 39, moved to Douglass Homes three years ago, and his sons rejoined him there about a year later. The complex of low-rise buildings is south of Orleans Street and east of Central Avenue near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Young mothers push babies in strollers during the morning, carting them around the courtyards accented with wire fences. The seemingly peaceful atmosphere turns menacing at night, residents say, when the drug trade is in full operation.

To get to Mr. Henry's one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of one building, visitors go through a private entrance and up a stairway. The flashing image of luxury evoked by the leather couch and chairs is --ed by the sight of the full-size mattress propped against the wall behind the small-screen television set in the tiny but tidy living room.

Every night, he says, the boys must move the glass coffee table from the center of the living room floor and place the mattress in its place. They place bed covers on it and go to bed -- both teen-age boys on one mattress.

Mr. Henry says he wants a place where the boys can have a bedroom and separate beds. He also wants to live in a community where residents don't gather on the playground on the third day of every month. That's when welfare benefits are transferred electronically to the cash-assistance accounts recipients tap at bank machines with Independence cards. He said a number of Douglass residents use welfare money to buy drugs from dealers at the playground.

When that happens, he said, it's dangerous. Tempers flare.

Mr. Henry grew up as an Army brat, traveling across the United States and to Germany as a young child. Watching his father, he dreamed of becoming a soldier. Later, captivated by Jacques Cousteau's explorations, he wanted to be an oceanologist.

His family settled in Baltimore, and he spent his teen-age years in the city, attending Douglass High. But he dropped out in the 11th grade -- he'd started drinking.

He joined the Army in 1974 and served for three years, including a stint in Germany. When he returned home with an honorable discharge, he said, good jobs were scarce.

Mr. Henry obtained his general equivalency diploma and enrolled in a technical school that led to nowhere. He took courses in welding, becoming certified in the trade. But his skills were unneeded in an industry that was rapidly downsizing.

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