Wheelchair user battles landlord and isolation

Company refuses resident's request for downstairs unit

June 15, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The kitchen window opens to sunshine and late-spring breezes, to the murmur of cars and trucks speeding through a highway's workweek bustle. Gail Riddic can feel the fresh air and hear the traffic. But day after day she sits in her wheelchair, separated from the outside world by a steep flight of stairs.

She wonders why she can't live in the downstairs apartment -- the one with the wheelchair ramp. The woman who lives there says she would have agreed months ago to a swap. But their landlord, a nonprofit corporation that runs a transitional housing program for the homeless, says no.

"Lord, it's a shame," Riddic says, her wheelchair parked, as usual, at the kitchen table of her cramped Catonsville apartment. "How could they be so cruel to have somebody who can't get out of their home, and they have what you need on the other floor?"

Her 15-year-old daughter, Angel, adds: "Sometimes I come home and she'll just be staring out the window. I get sad for her. I tell her things will get better."

For months, Riddic has been locked in a struggle with officials at Hearth Inc., a taxpayer-supported organization that provides housing for the homeless at its Lansdowne headquarters and in apartments in southwestern Baltimore County. The 37-year-old mother of four is accusing Hearth officials of discriminating against her because she is disabled.

`Abusive and uncooperative'

But Hearth officials say Riddic has a "hostile, abusive and uncooperative attitude." They have rejected her request to switch apartments -- and have told her that her lease will not be renewed when it expires next month.

"Gail has just caused chaos, and she hasn't just sat down and utilized what we can do for her family," said Ronald B. Hickernell, a former Baltimore County councilman who is Hearth's board chairman. "The complete lack of cooperation is something we've never run into."

As the dispute has unfolded, Hearth has also accused Riddic of damaging her apartment, of failing to document her claims of disability and failing to allow monthly inspections.

Riddic's lawyer calls the charges a smoke screen to conceal Hearth's treatment of a disabled client. Riddic began using the wheelchair four months after being accepted into Hearth's program.

Francine K. Hahn, pro bono coordinator for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, points to a section of Hearth's standard lease, saying the organization could move the tenants to accommodate Riddic's disability.

"What's so unusual about this is that it would be so obvious to the average person to see what needs to be done: to move someone who is using a wheelchair to an apartment so they can enjoy their life," Hahn said. "It's not only trapping someone physically, but emotionally as well. This chips away at someone's dignity."

Riddic says she's been out of her apartment a half-dozen times since November, usually to see a doctor or the therapist treating her depression. To leave, she says, she must scoot down a dozen steps on her backside. She then drapes her arms across the shoulders of her brother and one of her sons, and they help her into her wheelchair.

She does some cooking, and load after load of laundry in the apartment's small washer-dryer. But her children -- two boys and two girls, ages 10 to 15 -- must go to the grocery store and handle many household chores. Family trips to the movies or the mall are a memory.

She usually gets up about 5 a.m. and sits alone until the children awake. Once they are off to school, she works the phones, looking for an apartment that will accept her subsidized housing certificate and accommodate her wheelchair.

She says she'd rather be working or taking classes at Community College of Baltimore County.

"God knows I'm not the kind of woman who wants to sit around and collect checks," Riddic said. "That's not me."

The family's only income is $722 a month in child support.

On a recent afternoon, visiting nieces and nephews and the youngest of her children orbited around the table before bounding down the stairs and into the yard to cool off with a garden hose. Riddic stayed at the table. Suddenly, the apartment was quiet.

"I feel like my life is passing me by, like my life is wasted," she said, her face twisted in sadness and frustration. "Believe me, I've cried many a day up here."

Last year, she cried with joy after her first look at her apartment, a two-bedroom, $250-a-month upstairs unit in a small frame house on Johnnycake Road, not far from the commercial strip along Baltimore National Pike.

Everyone involved in the dispute agrees the apartment is too cramped for a family of five. But Riddic was "incredibly grateful," said Alexandra S. Laris, who was then Hearth's executive director.

`One of my favorite residents'

"I worked with her for four months, and I didn't have any problems," Laris said. "She was great. She was one of my favorite residents.

"When she came, it was one of the most heartwarming stories I'd heard, about someone who was working so hard raising four kids."

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