Families fight city, charity for home

Condemned duplex is only option besides homelessness, they say

September 04, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

It has been more than a month since the city of Annapolis condemned the duplex known as Anchor House and the charity group in charge tried to evict two families. The same charity later filed suit in District Court, attempting to force the families out.

But the families have stayed. Not because they love the house at 160 West St. - which reeks of raw sewage from a leaking toilet, is infested with mice and poses lead paint dangers - but because their alternative is homelessness, they say.

"It's not that easy to pick up and leave if you have no place to go," said Susan Dixon, 25, who lives in the upstairs apartment with her husband, Jeremy Welch, and their four children.

Both families say they are angry at what they see as a broken promise by the charity, Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., to let them live in the low-fee transitional shelter for up to two years until they got back on their feet. They say they are being evicted because they complained about hovel-like conditions at the house, which they say the charity failed to fix.

"They want us out of here, and they don't care to fix the problems," said Benjamin Bruce-Doe, who lives in the downstairs apartment with his wife and their two young children.

Annapolis Area Ministries paints a different picture. Executive Director Toni Graff describes two families that were not suited for the charity's program, refused to sign renewal agreements, were asked to leave and are endangering their children by living in an unsafe home.

"We have to close the building because we have some major problems with the building," Graff said. "Why they want to keep their children living in this building I don't know."

The house, she said, has "deteriorated quite quickly."

She said that because neither family renewed its agreement with the charity, both were asked to leave before the property was condemned.

The families say the charity's actions are retaliation against them for complaining to the city and a local newspaper.

"Everything changed after we got fed up with the nonsense," Dixon said.

Annapolis Area Ministries also runs Lighthouse, a 15-bed emergency shelter in Annapolis, and an Anchor House shelter on Smithville Street. Both families say they went to the charity because they were desperate.

Bruce-Doe said he developed heart problems in 1998, at age 31, and had to quit a well-paying job as a psychiatric technician. He fell behind on the mortgage payments for the five-bedroom house he had built in Laurel, filed for bankruptcy the next year and could only watch as the bank foreclosed on his home.

He rented a townhouse in Severn but couldn't make the payments. He struggled with his health - he had a heart attack in November 1999 - and he and his wife, Mayumi Ogihara, had a second child, now a year old.

After going to a church for help, the family moved into Anchor House.

Welch had been laid off from his job as a forklift operator, and the family moved into the basement of his mother's house in Suitland for a year, hoping to save money for a place of their own. But when his mother's landlord found out they were living there, he made them leave. They found themselves with no place to go and went to the Lighthouse shelter for help. They moved to Anchor House in November.

Both families say the conditions at Anchor House, where each family paid $400 a month, were deplorable from the beginning. The upstairs toilet leaked. Windows were missing panes. The heat did not work in some rooms. Previous tenants had left the apartments soiled with urine and feces, and littered with drug paraphernalia.

They said their complaints about the problems fell on deaf ears at the charity.

"They were like, `You are basically homeless,'" Welch said. "So you are not supposed to complain, you are not supposed to be human."

In June, an annual city inspection instructed Annapolis Area Ministries to fix more than 13 violations at the house, including "structurally unsound" front steps and a broken radiator. The charity appealed, saying that the city's notice was "unfair and creates an undue hardship."

The city inspected the building again June 28, after Bruce-Doe complained. The charity was cited for six more violations. It was ordered to repair a crumbling basement wall and another broken radiator, exterminate the mice and fix an upstairs toilet that an inspector feared might have been leaking sewer gases.

Two more city inspections were made in July, including a lead paint inspection that found lead on the enclosed porch and around the windows.

Annapolis Area Ministries sent a letter to the tenants July 23 evicting them and asking them to vacate the property by Aug. 20. Less than a week later, the city condemned the house, because by then the upstairs toilet was leaking into Bruce-Doe's apartment and the ceiling under it had collapsed.

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