Left behind in danger and dark

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Her oldest boy, 17-year-old Shellie, sleeps in the green-walled living room, next to the cardboard boxes the family has packed in case the city finds a place for them soon.

Shellie is just a teen-ager, but he's the man of the house. He will be the one to confront anybody who tries to get inside, said Calhoun, who like the rest of the residents interviewed on a recent day can't remember the last time she saw a police officer walk inside the complex.

"If someone comes in here, we're ready," she said.

Calhoun can count on more security by Monday, said Housing Authority spokesman John Wesley. Wesley said that security for the entire complex has been left up to the construction company demolishing the tower apartment units and to housing authority police, who go to the project when called by residents.

On Monday, he said, a private agency will start patrolling the grounds for stepped-up support. Flag House has had private security for the past several months, though Rogers complains she rarely sees them walk near her home.

There are numerous reasons for the failure to move these families.

Chief among them, say city officials such as Leonard Vaughan, interim deputy executive director for the housing authority, and observers such as Barbara Samuels, an attorney for the ACLU who watchdogs the city's housing plans, is a shortage in available housing for low-income city residents.

Over the past 10 years, as a number of the city's worn-down housing projects have been replaced with smaller complexes, the city's available public housing has dropped from about 18,000 to about 16,000 units, according to Samuels.

And there are few vacancies in the private housing market.

Harry Karas, president of the Broadway Homes tenant council, listed other factors, among them that the city has difficulty finding homes for large families that need at least four bedrooms and the recent deaths of the heads of two of the families left in his complex. Karas said the deaths have caused paperwork delays.

Observers like Samuels also point to a lack of thorough planning by the housing authority, poor timing - the housing authority relocated all three projects over the past year, creating fierce competition for the few decent housing spots in the city - and insufficient staffing.

Critics believe these resulted from errors made during the tenure of former housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

Henson defended his leadership, saying that when he was boss, relocation of both projects went smoothly and was proceeding on time. Henson also said that when a similar number of families were left at Murphy Homes, another demolished project, he made it a top priority to move them, personally going to the locations and providing emergency shelter.

"Leaving families alone, one or two of them in those big units, is very dangerous," he said.

Though HUD guidelines call for keeping full-time staff at every site being relocated, Samuels and many others said that has not occurred. The ACLU lawyer said a short-handed staff was shuttled between sites.

"That's not enough help for people who are, in many cases, making their first move," she said, noting her belief that the relocation effort has improved under new Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne.

Bette Ray, the city's coordinator for residential assistance, said the city was not short-staffed and placed full-time housing experts, as well as other part-time help, at both locations for the first six months of relocation, starting late last year.

Still, under Payne's leadership the city is now offering a second relocation to each of the residents of Flag House who have been moved. The offer, say housing authority officials, is being made after it was determined that many of the Flag House residents were not properly counseled during the first move.

Sha'Ron Rogers, a 32-year-old mother working at a public school as a teacher's aide who desperately wants to move out of the projects, cares little about the bureaucratic difficulties that might have led her family to this.

"I just want a place to live that's good for us," she said while walking through her complex on a recent day, her children following her dutifully.

Eleven-year-old Stacy complained because he was hardly allowed to go out and play anymore. Thirteen-year-old Ashley told of feeling afraid, of seeing men break into surrounding units or just walk right in open doors.

You can't feel safe knowing there are vagrants holing up inside those beaten, darkened buildings, said Rogers.

Especially when you know many of them have been there for sex with prostitutes or even, in the case of one man who camped out across the walkway from her home, to expose himself.

"Good Lord, someone could just grab one of the kids and take them in there and you'd never be able to find them," said Rogers, as she walked down a trashy pathway near a large green trash bin where rats have been living.

"Does anybody care a woman and her kids are living basically alone in one of the most dangerous places in Baltimore?"

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