Squalid Ground: After 10 weeks at a Northeast motel, Neal & Co. are back to their dilapidated digs. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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On Feb. 7, the city hastily moved Katrina Neal and her 11 neighbors from Chesapeake Street SE to a Northeast motel. The move, prompted by an inspection that deemed their building uninhabitable, was supposed to be temporary. The residents were made to believe they’d be away for the weekend while their building was repaired. But the weekend turned into several months, and in the meantime, vandals ransacked their homes, stealing or destroying most of their belongings (“Given the Loot,” 3/31).

But all was not lost, the residents thought. They were in the process of qualifying for new apartments and were preparing to move. The city even promised to pay application fees for their new digs. But on Wednesday, April 19, before their move had been finalized, Neal & Co. unexpectedly heard their time was up at the President Inn on New York Avenue.

“We found out from the man down at the front desk,” Neal says. “He said, ‘As of 12 o’clock noon on Friday, y’all got to go.’ ” She says he simply told her that the Red Cross and city officials weren’t footing the bill anymore. And according to Neal, no one from any city agency or the mayor’s office notified her or her neighbors.

“I didn’t know people could be so cruel,” Neal says, about being returned to a building that was officially uninhabitable two-and-a-half months ago.

According to agency spokeswoman Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs originally shut the Washington Highlands building down because it didn’t have water suitable for drinking. “They’re back in the building because potable water is available,” Robinson says. But not much else in the building has changed.

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Anyone can get into the main entrance; the door barely closes. The lock on Neal’s apartment door has been broken, and she has no way to secure it. But at least she has a doorknob—the apartment door next to hers has two gaping holes where the doorknob and deadbolt should be. Robinson says that since the tenants moved back in, the building’s owner has been cited for those violations, and as far as she knows, he’s working on getting the locks fixed. But a building without doors that lock isn’t uninhabitable according to her agency. “We do not shut a building down because there are no locks,” she says.

According to Mafara Hobson, spokesperson for Mayor Adrian Fenty, the residents still have the opportunity to move into new apartments and are eligible for aid from the Department of Human Services. But they took too long to get settled into their new places.

“Residents were assisted back to the Chesapeake property because many of them hadn’t finalized their relocations to new buildings,” Hobson wrote in an e-mail.

Back in her old apartment, Neal is crying.

“Everybody left me,” she says. She’s talking about her 11 neighbors, who were transported from the President Inn back to the Chesapeake Street building only a few hours before. They’d already left, she says, because they had workplaces or family in the area they could escape to. But being unemployed, disabled, and from South Carolina, Neal has nowhere to go.

Back in the bedroom, pieces of cardboard and a dark winter blanket cover windows that were broken out by vandals. Eggs are splattered against her living-room wall; their shells lie broken on the floor beneath the slime.

To make a bad situation worse, Neal says her old landlord is no longer accepting federal Section 8 housing vouchers. “We’ve got to pay him,” Neal says of the arrangement with Norris Goines, who still owns the building. “Section 8 is not paying him a dime. If we [aren’t] out of that building by the 1st, we got to pay that out of our pockets.” (Goines did not return calls for comment.) So now Neal is threatened with homelessness if she can’t scrounge up enough money to pay the rent before her application at another apartment complex goes through.

Neal says she’s reluctant to leave the premises—even for a short while—because she’s afraid her cat, Apple Pie, might get scared and run off. “That’s my friend,” Neal says. “That’s all I got.”