Although the entrance of the James Apartments, a seniors’ residence on the 1400 block of N Street NW, makes a fine place for drunken loiterers, 73-year-old resident Grace Alford was never very concerned about her security. But recently she’s changed her mind.
That’s because budget cuts have left two Logan Circle senior citizens’ housing facilities—the James and Claridge Towers, both administered by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA)—without full-time security from the agency’s police. A ready substitute has filled the void at the James—several times a week, the residents themselves guard the building.
Alford, who is president of the building’s tenants’ council, isn’t happy about the new arrangement. The security officers that the DCHA sometimes brought in to guard the building had a hard enough time controlling the scores of carousers, she says.
“A 70-year-old-woman ain’t got no business guarding the building,” Alford says. “I don’t think it’s right for the ladies to sit there.”
One Monday, the regular guard, a DCHA Police officer, doesn’t show up until midafternoon. But from 7 a.m. until he arrives at around 2 p.m., the James isn’t completely without protection. Lillian Ruffin, a 78-year-old who lives down the hall from Alford, mans the security desk at the entrance, checking people’s IDs and signing them in the building’s log book.
Sitting in her dim sixth-floor studio apartment later that afternoon, accompanied by her gray cat, Ruffin hardly cuts an intimidating figure. Looking as delicate as her years, she watches a broken TV, the top half of its picture black.
But she’s still plenty sharp-witted, even if she has trouble hearing the phone. “I’m very active,” she says. She’s been filling in at the security desk several times a week for more than a year now.
“We went to a meeting some time ago,” Ruffin explains. “[The building’s manager] told us that Housing could not afford to supply guards and we would have to fill in.” Though she works the desk without compensation, she says she doesn’t mind. “It doesn’t bother me. We’re protecting ourselves,” she says with a note of pride.
Usually, Ruffin says, she doesn’t encounter any problems keeping tabs on the facility; it helps that she refuses to work at night. Only once, she says, when a drunk took offense at her request for an ID, did she feel threatened and call for reinforcements.
Even so, both Alford and Carolyn Long, senior-citizen liaison for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, believe the situation is potentially hazardous. The James and Claridge, two of the six facilities in Long’s bailiwick, have had security issues for more than a year, she says, and funding cuts aren’t an excuse. “Security is plentiful at some of the buildings,” she says, noting that her aunt’s home at the DCHA’s Fort Lincoln building on Bladensburg Road NE is always well-protected.
The problems are somewhat more dire at Claridge Towers. According to Long, drug dealers have long operated out of the 300-plus-unit building. But though residents there have formed an orange-hat patrol to help out during emergencies, they haven’t filled in regularly, as Ruffin does.
The DCHA Police Department’s chief, William Pittman, says the staffing cuts date to the 2002 cancellation of the federal Drug Elimination Grant program, which gave his department as much as $2.1 million a year. Before the program was canceled, the department had 209 officers; now it has 153.
With lower staffing levels, Pittman was forced to shift officers from relatively low-crime facilities, such as the James and Claridge, to more dangerous areas. Despite the shortage, the senior guards are not DCHA-endorsed. “We don’t invite the tenants to perform security functions,” Pittman says. “[But] my people will notify the tenants’ council and tell them, ‘I have nobody that will be sitting at the desk for that tour [of duty].’”
And even without full-time patrols, he notes, crime rates at the senior residences have not increased: “Looking at the stats, nothing occurs in those facilities.”
Crime den or not, the James Apartments residents engage in whatever prevention strategies they can. Last week, the building’s manager ordered the benches outside removed, leaving loiterers without a place to sit. (Ruffin and others complain that they have no place to sit outside, either.) Alford would like to take security measures a step further—arming all of the DCHA guards, some of whom currently don’t carry weapons. “No one will get respect unless they’re carrying one of those,” she says.
But loiterers or not, until full-time security is implemented, Ruffin will be on the job. With one caveat: “Just so I don’t have to do it on Sunday,” she says. “I won’t do it on Sunday. I got to go to church.”
At press time, new DCHA guards had appeared at both Claridge Towers and the James. CP