Left behind in danger and dark

A handful of families huddle in the city's near-empty projects

June 17, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

They say they've been stranded, left to live in isolation amid the hulking, dangerous shells of two of Baltimore's worst housing projects.

Rhonda Calhoun, with nine kids at home, sleeps with a wrench and a baseball bat under her mattress. She is ready to confront the junkies who keep breaking into the vacant units all around her if they come her way.

Sha'Ron Rogers, mother of five, also has a bat - and a huge meat cleaver. She's afraid to let her kids out of sight, afraid of the vagrant men who have been camping out in apartments near her, of the couple spotted having sex in front of a rat-infested Dumpster close to her front door.

Calhoun and Rogers can't turn to neighbors for help. The neighbors in these sprawling, soon-to-be-demolished projects are virtually all gone.

"This is a ghost town," lamented Calhoun, whose family is one of the last five living at Broadway Homes, a concrete-and-cinderblock complex of 429 apartments off Orleans Street across from Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"You can go a whole day and not see anyone."

"You feel lost, forgotten," said Rogers, whose family is one of two remaining at the 487-apartment Flag House project on Lombard Street near Little Italy, a World War II-era village of spartan high-rises and three-story units also in its last days.

Over the past year, the Baltimore Housing Authority has embarked on an ambitious plan to move every resident from these East Baltimore housing projects, as well as a third large public housing complex, Hollander Ridge on the city's eastern border.

The plan, affecting roughly 1,000 residents at all three locations, is to tear down the dilapidated buildings and rebuild, putting up, by late 2001, smartly designed developments with far fewer residences.

Everyone is gone from Hollander Ridge, which is already being demolished.

But at Flag House and Broadway Homes, where hundreds of residents have been moved out over the past several months, the city has struggled to find housing for a small number of families. The lag comes despite city timetables that projected both complexes would be emptied by Jan. 31, according to tenant leaders at both locations.

"This is the most difficult phase of the development," said Zack Germroth, spokesman for the housing authority. He said that six of the seven families should be moved out by mid-July but admitted that the city is having severe trouble finding space big enough for Calhoun's family. "It's always tough to relocate the last few."

Trash and trespassers

The last few residents of Broadway Homes live in a small village of two- and three-level brown brick buildings shadowed by a single 22-story tower.

Though the place was always riddled with problems - drugs and violence and hopelessness - today it's even worse.

"Now," said Crystal Osborne, 22 and one of the last living there, "it's barely good enough for dogs."

Osborne looked out into the courtyard behind her home.

The courtyard, like the rest of Broadway Homes, was swamped with trash: old Motown records, Bartles and James liquor bottles, plastic bags hanging from trees like Christmas ornaments, an occasional syringe. Plywood planks were bolted over most of the windows.

The windows that had no planks had shards of broken glass or torn shades dangling. The sounds of garbage and debris being tossed by workers from the top of the nearby tower building, being prepared for demolition by city workers, pierced the air.

City maintenance crews had come in to board things up, but seemed oblivious to helping make the grounds and the remaining occupied apartments the least bit livable, said the last few residents.

They didn't worry about the water, which only ran scalding hot in some apartments and was tinted brown in all of them.

They didn't worry about the grass, which until recently had not been cut for weeks in front of some units, leaving it two feet high.

They didn't do much about the squatters.

"There's more people living here than the city knows about," said Calhoun, a 45-year-old who has never held a job. "Lots of people have broken into the apartments."

The most fearful moments, said Calhoun, her eyes lined by worry, come at night.

At night, darkness blankets the project. City maintenance crews have stripped most of the roughly 7-acre location of available lighting, she said, pointing to a spot nearby where a light pole had been torn out.

There is just a single source of illumination around her home, a bare 90-watt bulb she had to install above her door.

At night, the sounds of men and women breaking into the scores of vacant apartments around her have made Calhoun tense and frightened, but prepared to do battle.

Sleeping but on guard

After 9 p.m. she tells her kids to talk quietly. She has her televisions and radios turned off. You've got to be able to hear if someone is breaking in, she said.

Aside from the wrench, the green metal flashlight and the bat underneath her bed, Calhoun has scattered knives in hiding places around the five-bedroom unit.

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