The smell of filth filled the small apartment. The couches were overturned, along with a washing machine, and the floors were streaked with grime. A bra lay on the floor in front of Shirley Gilbert's refrigerator.
The underwear wasn't hers. Neither, she says, was the mess that drug dealers and junkies left for her to clean up in her one-bedroom apartment in the Latrobe public housing community in East Baltimore.
"It's not safe here," Gilbert said. "They come in and do what they want to do. They bust the window. My life has been threatened."
Gilbert, 48, said she has struggled to get help from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. She has repeatedly complained about a broken lock on the rear door, a broken window and young men loitering on her steps - all of which left her scared and forced her to spend nights at her daughter's home since mid-November.
Soon after, she said, drug dealers and addicts moved in and turned her home on Abbott Court into a dirty narcotics den.
On Friday, the housing authority's deputy executive director, Jemine Bryon, said in a statement that the system for dealing with such "difficult and complicated" situations has "generally proven to be effective." Housing officials disputed many of Gilbert's claims, including her complaints that they didn't fix a broken door lock and broken windows.
Gilbert is waiting to hear back from housing officials about her request to move, but is bracing for the possibility that her request will be denied and she will be responsible for cleaning the detritus from her apartment.
Housing officials say they relocate tenants only in emergencies or in special circumstances, and did not have enough documentation to support Gilbert's request to move. Also, they fix problems involving plumbing, heating and water systems, but the leaseholder is responsible for keeping an apartment clean.
Gilbert's move to Latrobe a year ago was a step up for her. She had been living in a boarding house in Northeast Baltimore and participating in an alcohol rehabilitation program. Her monthly rent at Latrobe is $177, and she gets disability checks. She has a daughter who lives in public housing in Cherry Hill. Gilbert has been spending nights at her daughter's apartment or with her niece, Laverne Hicks.
Hicks, a federal worker, has helped guide her aunt through the housing bureaucracy. She said that, on two separate occasions, officials with the housing agency's lease enforcement unit told Gilbert to not return to her unit if she felt unsafe.
But housing authority officials denied ever giving Hill that advice.
On Nov. 10, Gilbert came home and found a man sleeping in her bed. Baltimore police arrested the man, and he was later convicted and given an 18-month suspended sentence. On Nov. 20, a second burglary occurred at Gilbert's apartment, according to police.
One housing official promised them an investigation after the second break-in, but never followed up, Gilbert said - but housing officials said such a promise was never made. She petitioned in District Court to have her rent placed in escrow until her problems could be addressed but was denied.
Gilbert also sought help from the city state's attorney's office, but was told she needed more documentation and a referral from a city prosecutor involved in a case that specifically involved witness intimidation.
Housing authority officials initially said the agency acted appropriately as Gilbert's landlord and denied that her lock didn't work. On Dec. 19, a maintenance worker replaced a missing button in the rear door lock, but the lock itself was functional, officials said. Then maintenance workers replaced the locks Jan. 23 because Gilbert signed an authorization form to complete the lock change.
The agency also fixed her broken bathroom sink and smoke detector, said Bryon, the executive director.
In a statement to The Sun last week, housing officials denied that anyone in the agency told Gilbert that it was unsafe to return to her apartment.
But the statement from housing says, "We will work with her in the cleaning process."
Housing officials called Gilbert's situation unusual, in that they don't regularly receive reports of tenants forced to abandon their apartments because of intruders.
Most complaints are attributed to domestic problems or tenants handing out keys to friends and neighbors. Bryon said. She pointed to a 55 percent reduction in violent crime and drug dealing in Latrobe from 2006 to 2007. A police surveillance camera system, which cost more than $800,000, is helping reduce crime in the area.
"This housing authority is very, very serious about the health and safety of its residents," Bryon said.
On Wednesday, Gilbert and Hicks visited the unit - in the 800 block of Abbott Court -with a Sun reporter. A plastic jug filled with urine was in the living room. Dirty clothes and used condoms were scattered about floors caked with dirt. The toilet appeared clogged, and the bathtub was filled with debris, including a paper coffee cup and a dirty toothbrush.
After leaving the unit that day, Gilbert locked the front door firmly behind her.
The next morning, Thursday, a Sun reporter went to the apartment and found the door open. A neighbor said he saw men entering and leaving the apartment after Gilbert and Hicks left the day before.
"People think if you're uneducated and you're poor, they can take advantage of you," Hicks said. "I don't have a lot of money, but if I can help my aunt I will do it."