Mayor Martin O'Malley expressed outrage yesterday over the plight of families living in fear in two nearly empty East Baltimore housing projects, as city officials stepped up efforts to find homes for the residents.
The eight remaining families at Broadway Homes and Flag House Courts - which once housed nearly 1,000 people - have lived amid squalid conditions as the apartments around them have been emptied by the city in preparation for demolition this year.
Residents have armed themselves to fend off junkies and vagrants who break into deserted apartments.
The city has allowed garbage to accumulate while not keeping up with maintenance, allowing grass to grow 2 feet high at times and failing to replace lights.
"I hate to see any family living like this. Everybody should be outraged" by the conditions that these people have been living in, said O'Malley, who added that he did not know about the conditions until The Sun published an article about them Saturday.
Other officials and private citizens - from a top official of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to former Mayor William Donald Schaefer - said poor people should not have been forced to live in such conditions.
Although housing officials say they are moving quickly to find acceptable homes for the residents, some have objected to the locations. O'Malley said he would consider forcing them to move if they did not accept city relocation offers soon.
"Maybe for the sake of their kids we need to evict them from there," he said.
Broadway Homes tenant council president Harry Karas, informed of the mayor's suggestion, said: "This shows the insensitivity this young man has to the poor of Baltimore City."
City social workers and police converged on both projects Saturday night, offering more security and immediate emergency shelter at motels, according to Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne.
Payne said she also authorized increased patrols of the Broadway Homes projects, which had scant security over the past few months, by directing Housing Authority police and security guards from another city project to closely monitor the residents.
She said that within the next week most families would have finalized leases for acceptable homes. Last night, one family was moving out of Broadway Homes.
The commissioner admitted the city was having significant trouble finding up-to-code locations for two large families with at least five children.
According to Payne, who took office in January, every person offered temporary shelter over the weekend turned down the offer.
"Nobody came to my door and talked to me," responded Rhonda Calhoun, 45, one of the Broadway Homes residents. She said her 17-year-old son was approached by Housing Authority workers and asked whether he felt safe and needed police help.
Other residents said they were offered a hotel stay but didn't accept because they either distrusted the city's motives - fearing that if they were relocated they would be left in a hotel for a long period - or they were confident they would move soon.
Sha'Ron Rogers, who for the past several weeks has lived with her family of five kids in an otherwise vacant three-story building at Flag House, said she planned to sign a lease agreement by this morning.
She said that a city relocation worker had promised the goods in her home would be moved at no expense.
"I've just about got all of my boxes ready to go," said Rogers, a teacher's aide who said she was forced to move to the projects in the early 1990s when her marriage fell apart.
At Broadway Homes, Crystal Osborne, 22, said that a lease agreement to move her to an apartment was nearly ready. But she complained that she had not heard from a city-appointed housing specialist who is supposed to guide her through the move.
"It's another waiting process again," said Osborne, who said she hopes to move by Wednesday. "I'm mad."
Osborne said she has lived with her mother in the complex, a low-lying campus of two- and three-story buildings and a 22-story tower, since she was 6.
In December she took over the cramped two-bedroom apartment she shares with her two children after her mother died.
"I'm just looking to find a place that's good for the kids, so they can have a better life," said Osborne, noting that she is soon to start working as a waitress.
The city plans to tear down Broadway Homes and Flag House Courts and a third complex, Hollander Ridge, on Baltimore's eastern edge.
At all three sites, new, well-designed complexes are planned, with far fewer apartments and some units sold at market rate to middle-income buyers. About one-fourth of the residents at the old projects will be allowed to return.
The demolition and reconstruction fall under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI program, which provides federal grants to rebuild deteriorated housing projects.
Because there have been significant problems with relocation of residents for HOPE VI sites across the country, HUD has recently written new guidelines for housing authorities.
Those guidelines, as well as federal laws, clearly show that the needs of the people living in the projects are supposed to be well taken care of during relocation, according to Elinor Bacon, HUD's deputy assistant secretary, who oversees all HOPE VI developments.
Bacon said that residents being moved by the city have the right to pick where they want to be relocated - and to be treated well.
"Is it acceptable to have five families living in a situation like that? No," said Bacon.
The relocation problems extend to the people who have already left Flag House. Because many residents were moved into cramped apartments or not properly informed of their options and rights, the city has offered every resident a second move.
Some observers estimate the offer could end up costing the city close to $600,000.
Karas, president of the Broadway Homes tenant council, said the entire relocation effort has failed his residents.
"The situation these families have been forced to live in just shows a portion of what has been wrong with this process," said Karas.
He complained that residents were never given adequate support, that he had to fill in for city workers in finding many of them homes, and that he had been trying all year to get the city to work on finding a home large enough for Calhoun, who cares for nine of her own children and grandchildren and needs a five-bedroom house.
"The living conditions are deplorable, and the fault lies on the lap of the new administration," Karas said. "How these people have been living is an example of the city's callousness and indifference to poor people."
Barbara Samuels, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland who has been monitoring the relocation, also was critical.
"There's always going to be the last people left," she said. "The conditions in terms of being the last people left are inevitably poor, but the city should plan to minimize them by providing basic services."
Schaefer said he felt the city could have found homes for all the families if the leadership were adamant about it:
"I understand it's tough but [the city owes] an obligation when they clean out places like that to put people in safe places. ... This is very sad."