Heater leaves residents in cold

Failing system at aging McCullough Homes is blamed for sickness

January 18, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Still recovering from a bout with pneumonia, 11-year-old Samyra Moore, who suffers from lupus, asthma and diabetes, gets up every morning to near-freezing temperatures that leave her barely able to move.

Samyra and the five other members of her family live in a five-bedroom apartment at the McCullough Homes, a 122-unit aging public housing complex on the west side of Baltimore that has a critical ailment of its own - a central heating system that city housing officials acknowledge is failing.

Flanked by two space heaters provided by the Baltimore City Housing Authority, Sharon Brooks, Samyra's mother, said she has no doubt the lack of heat led to her daughter's recent hospital stay.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions on heating problems in a city public housing complex misspelled its name, McCulloh Homes.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"The house made the pneumonia," said Brooks.

While the orange-hot space heaters keep the first floor of the apartment warm during the day, Brooks said she has to turn them off at night for the safety of herself and her children.

And, as she demonstrated during a recent visit, if a space heater is plugged in on the second floor, it quickly overloads the electrical circuits and pops the circuit breaker, shutting off the power.

Because four of the five bedrooms are on the second floor, Brooks said, the family has resorted to sleeping in shifts, alternating between the slightly warmer first floor and the frigid second.

Samyra is confined to the first floor because the elevator that is supposed to transport her and her wheelchair to her second-floor bedroom doesn't work properly.

By 5 a.m. on school days, when Brooks gets up to assemble her charges, including Samyra's twin sister Samantha, she says the temperature in the apartment has dropped to about the same temperature outdoors.

For Samyra, Brooks said, the morning cold is excruciating because lupus has attacked her joints and extreme cold or heat only makes it worse.

Antiquated, inadequate

Melvin Edwards, a spokesman for the housing authority, said yesterday that the problem faced by the Brooks family is the result of a central heating system that is antiquated and inadequate.

Edwards said there have been heating problems throughout the complex, and the agency has been attempting to address them on an individual basis.

He acknowledged that Samyra's health problems make her situation more urgent.

The housing authority has "bent over backwards" to address the needs of the Brooks family, Edwards said, including providing the space heaters and sending in maintenance workers to monitor the temperature and address other problems, such as the electrical system.

Late yesterday, a housing authority maintenance crew was back at the apartment in another attempt to repair the heating system.

"We are trying to be as creative as possible," Edwards said. "We're asking all the [McCullough] residents to be patient and work with us."

Informed that the Brooks family had safety concerns leaving the space heaters running at night, Edwards later said that the agency would try to obtain other space heaters with automatic shut-off safety features.

There is no immediate prospect of the heating system being repaired or replaced, he said.

"The options are limited," said Edwards. "It's too old to be repaired, too costly to be replaced. It's an old complex."

McCullough Homes dates to the early 1940s. A major addition was constructed in the early 1970s.

In the late 1970s, the project faced a heating crisis when the boilers failed and the city had to rent a temporary heating system to keep tenants warm.

Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center, who has taken up the Brooks family's cause, said she has asked the housing authority to move the family to another location with adequate heating.

Calling the family's situation "outrageous," Young said she has provided housing officials with detailed information about Samyra's health problems, backed up with verification from the child's physician.

She said she also has informed the agency about the other problems. "There are problems with electrical wires and the electricity, and there has never been adequate heat," said Young.

Class action lawsuit

And the Brooks family is not alone. Irene Preston, who also is physically disabled and lives in the complex, said she has encountered the same problems.

"It gets real cold," said the 56-year old woman, who said she was transferred to her unit in October.

Preston is one of the named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed last year against the housing authority. The lawsuit says the authority has acted unlawfully to exclude the disabled from its projects and has failed to make adequate accommodations for those who are tenants. The housing authority has denied the charges.

The two sides are scheduled to engage in talks for a possible settlement during the next two months.

Back in her apartment, Sharon Brooks demonstrated how the door to the elevator can be opened only with a strong push, followed by an even stronger tug - a maneuver Samyra cannot accomplish.

"You try it," Brooks said. "Go ahead!"

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