Seniors make a plea for peace

Safety: Older residents in the city's public housing say an influx of disabled tenants has made their homes more dangerous.

August 29, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

There was a time when the senior citizens who call Lakeview Towers home lived comfortably.

They would adorn the hallways with Christmas lights and welcome mats, and while away the evening hours with bingo games and courtyard gossip.

No more.

In recent years, the elderly occupants of one of the city's high-rise public housing buildings complain, the dangers of the street have spilled into their isolated enclave - a result, they say, of lax security and an influx of younger, disabled residents, some of them recovering drug addicts, into the once-tranquil and seniors-only complex.

Longtime Lakeview residents say that prostitutes, drug dealers and drug users now have free rein in the building, a problem that some tenant council presidents say is duplicated in many of the city's other 18 mixed-used buildings.

The atmosphere is so fraught with fear that seniors say they are afraid to take out their trash in the hallway or get on the elevator at night. "It's not safe for us at a certain time of night," said Cecelia Stepto, 85. "You don't know who you're gonna meet in the hallways. When I walk the hall, I just take my stick. It's terrible that you don't feel safe. I just want peace and safety."

Advocates for the disabled say they are being unfairly blamed for the problems.

And police and housing officials say that crime is down in the mixed-use developments and that the fears expressed by seniors are more perception than reality.

But Lakeview tenants counter that building monitors sometimes sleep on the job and that police presence has been minimal after the city disbanded its public housing authority police force last year and created a housing unit in the city's force.

"When I moved in here, it was all seniors," said Julia Brinson, 79, president of the Tenant Council at Lakeview. "Now, oh my goodness. The squatters and the drugs. I'm not letting them run me out, but I'm scared. You can't sit up here in your cell all day looking at the walls."

Officials concede that mixing younger, disabled residents with older groups has created a generational clash, but one that is dictated by federal regulations.

"Of course they are scared," said Maj. Jesse Oden, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's public housing unit, referring to the senior tenants. He said his officers concentrate on family developments where violence and arrests are more prevalent, and that they usually only go to the senior and disabled complexes when there is a call for help.

Oden agreed that the complaints by seniors are legitimate, even if not backed up statistically. "They don't know who these guys are," he said. "They don't know what these guys are capable of. I've worked narcotics for 13 years, so I know what they're afraid of."

Baltimore housing officials began to remake senior housing units into mixed developments in the late 1990s to provide more housing for low-income people with disabilities.

That process became even more imperative last year when housing officials were forced to take more measures to settle a long-standing federal discrimination lawsuit. About 33 percent of the city's mixed-population buildings now consists of nonsenior disabled residents. Advocates for the disabled say that by law, the city was supposed to include disabled residents in the complexes all along.

The perception that the disabled have caused a drug problem is a misinformed stereotype, said Lauren Young, legal director of the Maryland Disability Law Center.

"I understand people's perceptions and concerns," said Young, whose group filed the federal lawsuit. "But people with disabilities don't want to be unsafe. They don't want to have drug dealers there, either."

City officials are not pushing seniors out but rather filling vacant apartments with eligible disabled residents, for whom the public housing demand is the greatest.

Problems caused by mixing the two groups have been noted for years.

John P. Stewart, executive director of Baltimore's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education, said he receives complaints about intimidation and is working with the City Council on addressing the concerns.

"There is a younger disabled drug population residing in many of these units," said Stewart. "We're looking at better security and more safety features for seniors."

Housing officials say they are currently developing a program to enhance communication between the two groups.

Jemine Bryon, deputy executive director of the city housing authority, said the problems stem more from visitors than tenants. She said the housing department has an active lease-enforcement unit that works to evict problem tenants or tenants with visitors who create problems.

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