Needy losing fight for housing, to drug dealers, wrecking ball


November 11, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

NO TWO things could be easier said than done in the city of Baltimore -- finding a safe place for a poor woman and her children to live and driving out drug dealers who make life so miserable to begin with. Yesterday, it was possible to stand at a confluence of these two problems -- the 600 block of Smithson St. in the Upton section of West Baltimore.

Shalelah Cook moved into a relatively new, federally subsidized townhouse there in November 1994. She decorated it cheerfully and kept it neat.

But she smelled reefer right away; great clouds of marijuana smoke rose from the street below the front bedroom window. Drug dealers became permanently ensconced on her corner, one of them sitting happily on a milk crate all night long, bad-mouthing and threatening Cook if she complained, feeding rats that lived in big holes right outside Cook's door. One of the guys offered $5 to a neighbor's 8-year-old son if he agreed to keep drugs for them.

Then came the bullet.

It struck Cook's house only two months after she and her four kids had moved in -- January 1995. There have been three shootings since then.

As a result, Cook says, her four children are prisoners; they won't go outside to play. One of them, Shardae, performs poorly in school and paces the second-floor hallway at night. She's 11 years old. A clinical social worker at the Kennedy Krieger Institute says Shardae's fears about the neighborhood have affected her appetite and her ability to sleep.

She was 7 when a bullet shattered the window in her front bedroom; she and her 4-year-old sister, Teiarra, were in bed at the time. The blast left them covered with shards of glass.

The bedroom is no longer theirs, though the pink "colonial Barbie" border still runs along the walls. The bullet hole is still in the ceiling. You can see the crack where the bullet sliced through the metal blinds.

Another bullet struck a brick wall in the back yard during a kiddie birthday party in 1996. Two young men, one firing shots from a handgun, ran through the alley behind Cook's house. Happy birthday.

A third bullet hit the same front bedroom window, piercing but not shattering it, in May 1997. Shalelah Cook, 26, had moved into the front bedroom by then. Her girls slept in a rear room of the house.

The fourth bullet struck the front door in August, after a relatively peaceful period. ("I heard the dealers talking about vacation," Cook says. "They were standing out there talking about taking a vacation in July.") The blister from the August bullet is the first thing Shalelah Cook pointed to yesterday morning. The bullet is still lodged in the door.

Why is Shalelah Cook still here?

Moving is easier said than done.

She can't afford much else and much else isn't available right now. If she walked away from her townhouse, she'd be stepping out of line for public housing, in its many forms. The waiting list for public housing in Baltimore is 23,000 poor families long.

Cook, a single parent who has worked over the last few years as a cashier and as a security guard, would like the city to grant her a Section 8 housing voucher; that would give her the freedom to move with her children just about anywhere. She studied to be a geriatric nursing assistant at Baltimore City Community College. She wants to find a job that will eventually pay the rent.

A Section 8 voucher would be a big help right now -- financially, and for the well-being of her children, especially the oldest one.

"Shardae is a child who has learning difficulties," says the report from Kennedy Krieger, given to the city housing department in April 1996. "Shardae appears depressed. It has come to our attention that Shardae is very fearful of the violence that takes place in the neighborhood where she lives. Team members who evaluated Shardae feel it would benefit her if she and her family can move to a safer environment. Any assistance you can provide in helping them obtain a Section 8 housing certificate to enable them to relocate would be greatly appreciated."

Two and a half years after that report, and nearly four years after Shalelah Cook first applied for a voucher, she's still waiting for a Section 8 interview.

Why would such a thing take so long?

The weight of the numbers -- 23,000 families on the list during a time when city government tears down high-rises and vacant houses. Even houses rehabilitated over the past two decades, at great taxpayer expense, could fall to the wrecking ball. It's all said to be part of a Dan Henson master plan to break up the high concentration of poor people living in Baltimore, though it more often looks like a policy of surrender.

"Poor people have choices," Henson, the housing commissioner, said the other day. "Many of these houses are in areas where drug dealers hang on corners. Nobody wants to live there."

Amazing and ironic, bordering on the surreal. An official of the Schmoke administration orders the demolition of renovated houses, at a time of great housing need, because of the same administration's failure to stem the drug trade. It's as if we're giving up, surrendering whole blocks to the drug dealers.

And people like Shalelah Cook?

They can just move on.


Some day.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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