Disabled resident draws demonstrators' support

Protest targets program for homeless women

June 19, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

A small band of protesters, some on foot and others in wheelchairs, besieged a red brick building in the heart of residential Lansdowne yesterday. Singing, chanting and rapping on windows, the demonstrators complained that officials at the Hearth Inc. program for homeless women have virtually imprisoned a disabled tenant in her apartment.

More than three hours later, the protesters had failed to get tenant Gail Riddic moved to an apartment with a ramp for her wheelchair.

Still, they took satisfaction in presuming that the shelter's director had avoided them only by retreating to his basement office -- stuck there, they believed, just as Riddic has been stuck in her second-floor apartment.

"I don't think he's had the opportunity to develop some empathy for that `stuck' feeling," said protester Gayle Hafner. "`Stuck' is a common experience for almost all wheelchair users. We've all had that feeling of `I'm stuck. I can't get out, I can't get in.' "

Hafner, a former administrative law judge who is co-coordinator for the Maryland chapter of ADAPT (American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today), was among the leaders of a demonstration meant to draw attention to Riddic's battle with Hearth officials.

Riddic, 37, lives with her four children in a Hearth Inc.-managed, second-floor apartment in a house in Catonsville.

First-floor unit sought

She has asked Hearth officials to allow her to move to a first-floor unit in the house, and the woman who lives there says she would have agreed months ago to a swap.

Through her lawyer, Riddic noted a clause in Hearth's lease that allows the organization to move tenants to accommodate her disability.

Hearth, a taxpayer-supported organization, has denied the request.

Saying Riddic has a "hostile, abusive and uncooperative attitude," Hearth officials have moved to expel her from its transitional housing program by telling her that her lease will not be renewed when it expires next month. Riddic has been searching in vain, she said, for subsidized housing that will accommodate her wheelchair.

Riddic has filed a discrimination complaint with federal housing authorities.

The Homeless Persons Representation Project, which has provided free legal services for Riddic, and ADAPT organized yesterday's protest.

About a dozen demonstrators took to a tree-lined street where the quiet is interrupted only by the howl of the volunteer fire company's siren.

Attempts to reach Hearth Executive Director Michael LaBua were unsuccessful yesterday. Protesters complained that LaBua rushed past them and into his office without stopping to talk about their concerns.

The Rev. Bill Herche, pastor of neighboring Lansdowne United Methodist Church, said the criticism of Hearth is unfair.

"Hearth puts up with a lot of flak to do what they do," he said, adding that some neighbors, who he said are bigoted, grumble about the poor, black families that are part of Hearth's clientele. "To march against them and give them a hard time, that's not the way to work with them."

Picket line

The protest began with a picket line, some walking and some ADAPT members in wheelchairs.

Defying a "no trespassing" sign, the protesters opened a wooden gate and moved into a courtyard.

They knocked on the door and asked Hearth officials to come out and discuss their complaint. No one did.

Gail Riddic watched with approval.

With the help of her two teen-age sons, she had scooted down a steep flight of stairs to leave the house. She said it was only the eighth time she had been out of the apartment since she began using a wheelchair in November.

"It helps me realize I'm not alone," she said. "These are people I've never met before in my life, and they come out to help me get better housing. I feel blessed."

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