Judging from its first-floor lobby, life at the Garfield Terrace Senior building doesn’t look much different than life at a Florida retirement home. On the community bulletin board, a flier urges seniors to take part in an upcoming gala called Elderfest 2006. Beside that, disabled residents can read an advertisement for motorized scooters. And on a separate board across the hallway, an illustrated informational poster asks a question pertinent to the building’s many septuagenarians: “What is Osteoporosis?”
On a recent Friday afternoon, however, the business about to be discussed among the elders gathered in the ninth-floor recreation room doesn’t sound very Del Boca Vista–like. The feeling among many longtime residents is that during the last three years or so, the hallways of their 10-floor high-rise have been taken over by drug dealers and junkies.
Among the concerns they’ve brought along with their aluminum canes and wheelchairs: known prostitutes who sign themselves into the building as guests, unidentified sketchballs passed out in the laundry rooms, and suspected drug dealers intimidating those seniors who speak out against their presence. And as anyone plugged into Garfield’s busy gossip circuit knows, a former vice president of the residents’ council was recently robbed in the elevator by a group of nonresident teenagers.
Resident Avada Snow, whose mother used to live at the Columbia Heights complex, offers the same answer many of the older folks do when asked what led to the problems: “It started when they let in these young guys,” he says.
For the past few years, Garfield Terrace Senior hasn’t been exclusively for seniors. Because of anti-discrimination laws, units that were once reserved for the elderly are now open to qualifying disabled D.C. residents of any age. There is a perception among seniors that some of their new, younger cohabitants are in wheelchairs because they were shot—and that they were shot because of their dealings on the street. The city, complains one elderly resident, “puts them in there with us, and it doesn’t help at all. Why load them off on a senior building?”
Some attendees have billed this afternoon’s powwow as an emergency meeting, and after a prefatory group prayer punctuated with amens and hallelujahs, the 30-or-so residents get down to business. A woman in a yellow-and-black blouse takes the floor to inform the group of a disturbing incident she witnessed the previous day. She was outside the front of the building, where a man, perhaps drunk, sat on a nearby ledge. “He got up,” the woman narrates, “and urinated on the wall.” A collective gasp rushes through the room. But the woman isn’t through with her story. The man, who did not live in the building, then staggered to the front doors, where a security guard promptly signed him in as a guest, she explains. More gasps.
The old hats at Garfield say they never had to deal with such quality-of-life issues just a few years back. Indeed, the building of yesteryear they describe is so idyllic, one has to wonder if it ever existed. “Oh, it was beautiful back then,” says 79-year-old Mary Plush, who moved here in 1990, when she worked for the city’s Office on Aging. “It was just lovely.” Snow says there was a time when wheelchair-bound seniors would keep their doors open and chat with one another across the hallway. He doesn’t see much of that anymore.
“The last couple of years,” he explains, “it’s been like a twilight zone.”
Calvin Woodland, a representative of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s office, says of the building, “It kind of became lawless. It’s unbelievable.”
What residents describe combines the worst of a college dormitory with the worst of a homeless shelter. “All hours of the night, you got these amazons coming out into the hallway, hollering ‘motherfucker sons of bitches,’” says resident Henry “Hosea” Myers, 76. “And you’re scared. It’s dangerous in this apartment.” Myers, who has been at Garfield since the mid-’90s, feels that the building’s seen a generational change in the past few years. “A lot of the people that have died out, they didn’t put up with bullshit. But this crowd coming in the last five years, they’re not worth a damn.”
One of the newer residents, a 46-year-old with schizophrenia, moved to Garfield because it was cheaper than Section 8 housing. He soon learned that in spite of the building’s sky-high median age, the senior home wasn’t the best place to manage a crack addiction. “When I came here, I’d been clean for five years,” he explains. “But here, I couldn’t get no peace. There’s always someone trying to get to know you….I done got weak and got dirty.” He adds, “This place is corrupted.”
That lack of peace has changed the way Garfield’s older residents go about their days. Plush, a victim of ministrokes and a broken knee in recent years, at one point had to give up her doctor-recommended daily walks down the hallway “because I wouldn’t know who I’d meet around the corner.” She’s since resumed a shortened version of the walks, but she still won’t venture beyond the elevator on her floor. Plush says that one day she felt sufficiently threatened by a younger Garfield resident to beat the man with her cane. “I really worked on him,” she says proudly.
Victoria Dorsey, a 52-year-old who’s at Garfield, says she doesn’t want to be at home unless she has to be. Dorsey says she has had problems with marijuana smoke coming through the floor—a complaint echoed by other Garfield residents—and one night she woke up choking from the fumes. The asthma problems she hadn’t experienced for five years then resurfaced, and now she has to sleep with an inhaler beside her bed. “We’ve got a lot of seniors that won’t come out of their apartments because they’re afraid,” says Dorsey. “If you didn’t knock on their doors, you wouldn’t know they’re all right.”
After hearing stories of craps games being played outside old ladies’ apartments, Graham’s office held a council hearing to address public-safety issues in District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) buildings and, more specifically, Garfield Terrace Senior. On July 7, DCHA officials visited the John A. Wilson Building to hear a mostly geriatric crowd testify to seeing barred visitors signed into the building, doors being broken in, heroin being used in an elevator, and unseemly characters living illegally in units. One squatter, a resident complained, had the gall to grab a plate at the community’s Fourth of July party and help herself to their home-cooked food. “We kind of fear for our lives,” another resident said. Graham presciently thanked them for their courage in testifying.
The hearing was followed by a crackdown by housing police. “We’ve increased patrols there tremendously,” says DCHA Office of Public Safety Chief William Pittman, who has fewer than 100 armed officers to serve 53 properties. “We’ve gone in and got warrants to some units…in addition to barring a large number of people.” But with the arrests came a campaign of retaliation carried out by suspected dealers against the seniors who’d testified. Seventy-nine-year-old Annie Mitchell, president of the residents’ council, discovered that someone had put a note on her door that warned, “Watch your back.” (Someone had also scribbled “bitch” and “whore” on it.) Mitchell, a feisty leader among the seniors who still works as a security guard, replaced it with a note of her own. It read, “Come to me coward and repeat those words.…We will settle it.”
Like Mitchell, 67-year-old Myers testified before Graham. Days later, a younger Garfield resident and some friends in a car with tinted windows pulled up alongside him on the street. “‘That’s the son of a bitch right there,’” Myers recalls the resident saying to him. The young man went on to call Myers a “snitch” and a “cheese-eater.” Later that day, Myers was escorted by a police officer through the doors of his own building.
The specter of retaliation has made plenty of seniors think twice before lodging complaints with the DCHA. But in the meeting in the rec room, one older woman says they shouldn’t be swayed by intimidation. “They’re taking a part of our building and just running away with it,” she cries. “This is our territory and we have to protect our units.”
“Everybody I’ve talked to, they can’t believe seniors are living under the conditions that you are,” Woodland, Graham’s rep, tells the crowd. Woodland announces that the councilmember will be holding another hearing on crime at Garfield, and he would like to know who’d be willing to come downtown to testify.
At first, just a couple of people in the crowd volunteer. But after some words of encouragement, a few more hands rise, and soon so many hobbled seniors have agreed to testify that they don’t know how they’ll all get down to the Wilson Building together.
“Maybe we could rent a bus,” one old man suggests.CP