Wait drags on for mother seeking safer surroundings Legal process slow for those suing to leave the inner city

April 01, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

When Doris Tinsley moved her family from the Lexington Terrace public-housing project to a city-owned rowhouse in East Baltimore, she believed she had left behind the atmosphere of drug abuse and violence she feared would claim her five children.

But only a month after that move in 1987, Ms. Tinsley and her children watched from their house in the Johnston Square neighborhood as a young man was felled by a shotgun blast at a playground across the street. She has wanted to get out ever since.

About just more than a year ago, Ms. Tinsley, 43, was one of six black Baltimore public-housing residents who filed suit against city and federal officials. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, they sought a court-ordered escape from the segregated poverty pockets where they lived.

Since then, as lawyers have spent long hours arguing fine points while trying to reach a settlement, Ms. Tinsley has endured another year living in the shadow of the nearby Maryland Penitentiary, watching her back alley pile up with trash, walking past corner drug dealers and listening to nighttime gunfire.

"My two smaller kids basically don't want to go outside," she said. "When I was a kid, I was carefree. I could go out and play, not worrying about somebody getting killed or whatever. Today kids worry about everything. Some kids worry about whether or not their mother will get her next fix because mom is more herself when she gets that fix."

Doris Tinsley's story is hers alone, but it reflects the lives of the more than 2,000 public-housing families that would move to middle-income, mostly white areas in and around Baltimore under a proposed settlement of the lawsuit. The accord is under review by the U.S. Justice Department.

Ms. Tinsley, whose round face crinkles when she smiles, does not blame society for all her problems. She also blames herself.

As a young woman, she worked as a spot welder and assembly line worker. She married a soldier, the father of her two oldest children, and moved from base to base.

After they separated, she took refuge in public housing. Her life spiraled downward.

"I wasn't a perfect person," she said. "I smoked cigarettes, drank, smoked a little reefer, partied, had live-in boyfriends and wasn't the best parent I could be. That's how I wound up with three children [with three different fathers] after we separated."

Those children -- two sons, ages 16 and 13, and a 10-year-old daughter -- live with her in the two-floor apartment for which she pays $217 a month (from her $767 monthly welfare income and a son's disability payments). An older daughter, 23, works and has moved to Baltimore County. A 21-year-old son attends college.

Eight years ago, Ms. Tinsley said, her life began to turn around. "I started having a lot of dreams, and the Lord started dealing with me," she said. She put her faith in Jesus Christ.

She has pledged to focus on her children. She prays they will survive their surroundings.

From her back porch, where she is too scared to sit even on the hottest nights, she looks out on nearby vacant houses and a Greenmount Avenue strip where "you can see someone get killed or the police chasing somebody."

From the front stoop, by the broken windows of the vacant apartment below her, the view is dominated by St. Frances Academy, the Catholic school she regards as an oasis of hope in a desolate landscape, and the Pen.

Three years ago this summer, Ms. Tinsley and two of her children saw a man executed with a bullet to the temple in the doorway of a vacant house on their block. This month, the body of a 16-year-old youth, the apparent victim of a pedophile, was found in a boarded-up building a block from her daughter's school.

She fears that her 16-year-old son will get into trouble, which she defines as "death or jail."

"In this community you've got a lot of parents on drugs and children basically raising themselves, with no morals, no values, no concern for life. They just live from day to day. They don't think about the consequences of their actions," she said.

During the past year, Ms. Tinsley has struggled with asthma and other health problems. Johnston Square Positive Force, a community group she spearheaded, has withered as she got sick and another leader moved.

Ms. Tinsley hopes this will be the year her family moves away, either as a result of the lawsuit or because she receives Section 8 rental assistance, which links public housing tenants with private landlords. She has been on the waiting list since 1990.

Asked why taxpayers should help her move to a better neighborhood, she said: "I think they should support the program because everybody has to have somewhere to live whether they can afford it or not. It doesn't take much for you to fall into the same situation I'm in.

"People who have really bad drug habits wouldn't want to move from here anyhow because they want to be where they can get what they need," she said.

"It's not everybody trying to get away from here. It's people like myself who want something better out of life."

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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