City 'housekeepers' make sweep of blighted Murphy Homes building Move comes hours before hearing on Henson

February 15, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Backed by 100 police officers, repair crews and social workers yesterday took over a 14-story building in Murphy Homes -- the city's most drug- and crime-ridden public housing complex -- and began efforts to reverse the blight.

After police required all visitors to leave, teams of workers inspected every apartment, repaired leaky faucets, painted over graffiti and taught residents how to maintain their homes. Police also opened a substation in the high-rise.

Over the past several weeks, police raided 10 apartments and arrested people on suspicion of selling drugs out of their homes. No one was arrested yesterday. Residents were given two days' notice of the cleanup.

It was the second time in two years the Housing Authority of Baltimore City conducted what officials call an ECHO -- Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation -- at 1058 Argyle Ave., one building in the 15-acre Murphy Homes.

The action came hours before Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was to appear at a public hearing at City Hall to answer questions about his performance as commissioner.

It also is less than three months since the federal government required Nation of Islam Security Agency guards to leave the public housing and installed Wells Fargo Guard Services. Residents have complained that the new security agency is not doing a good job and is allowing drug dealers to return to the buildings.

"These guards, I guess you have to give them a chance, but they aren't doing what they are supposed to be doing," complained Mary Holmes, 67, who has raised a family in Murphy Homes since moving in 19 years ago.

She told social workers who visited her third-floor apartment yesterday that visitors often get into the building unchecked by security. She also said the hallways are dirty, and broken appliances are not repaired.

Maj. Cornelius J. Hairston of the Housing Authority Police Department said city officials are compiling residents' complaints.

He said that Wells Fargo has fired several guards who were not protecting residents.

But the major said that even with a continued presence of Nation of Islam guards -- who were praised widely by residents for their polite but no-nonsense discipline -- yesterday's operation still would have been necessary.

"The 1058 Argyle Ave. building has been the most persistent problem we have," Mr. Henson said. "Even if NOI was here, we would have to go in and do something. NOI had trouble holding this building."

He said that since NOI left in December, "there has been some deterioration" in safety and evidence "of drug sales actually being transacted inside the building."

"We promised those residents that under no circumstances would we let it go back to the way it was," he said.

Five years ago, Murphy Homes was known as "Murder Homes," and shotgun-toting drug dealers guarded the doors and bought off the private security guards then employed. Dealers often shot out security booth windows.

The Baltimore Housing Authority has applied for a $17 million grant to demolish and rebuild Murphy Homes, one of four high-rise developments that are being redeveloped. The first to be razed was Lafayette Courts, which came down in August.

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