Housing agency tough on drugs

27 12 2007

PASSAIC — In the last 12 months, the city’s Housing Authority has put 30 families on an eviction list and more than 150 people on a “no-trespass” list as part of a tougher stance against drugs and crime on its premises.

And while some are lauding the program, others say it does nothing more than uproot families or tear them apart.

“I try to tell him don’t go out there and get into trouble, but I can’t control what he does,” said Margaret Jackson, whose son, Calvin Stegal, 19, has numerous arrests for drugs and one arrest for beating up another tenant, according to Jose Colon, the authority’s security director. Jackson sobbed when she learned she has been put on the authority’s eviction list.

“I got nowhere to go,” she said.

Bill Snyder, the authority’s executive director, says the action reflects the authority’s more rigid enforcement of the federal “one strike” policy. The rule gives public housing authorities the right to evict a resident if any member of their household or a guest is caught using illegal drugs or is involved in drug-related criminal activity on or near the premises — even if the resident was unaware of the activity.

The rule has stirred controversy across the country, including in Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the rule in HUD v. Rucker. The suit was brought by four California residents who were evicted.

Bryan Zises, a spokesman for the Chicago Housing Authority, told the New York Times that the exclusions helped the agency provide a safe environment for residents.

“At the end of the day, we’re landlords, and we need to be as good a landlord as we can for the people who live there,” Zises said in an Oct. 1 New York Times article.

Snyder’s efforts are part of a larger project to get the authority back on its feet after a federal audit last year found the agency improperly handled $2.4 million in funding. Now that the finances are in better order — with a surplus of $40,000 recorded at the end of November — Snyder said that his mission is to focus on some of the quality-of-life issues that plague the authority’s properties.

Residents have mixed feelings about his “tough love” approach.

Resident Leader Katie Johnson said she has noticed fewer drug dealers in the park behind her home on Sixth Street. She attributes the change to Snyder’s aggressiveness.

“He processes stuff faster and the policemen are doing more raids and the lawyers are working faster,” Johnson said, adding that, along with the one strike policy, the installation of cameras in hallways and the authority’s new contract for services with the county Sheriff’s Department, has helped matters.

Mary Williams says she believes the policy is disruptive. She said she was forced to forsake her 19-year-old son, Mark Williams earlier this year when he nearly got her evicted from her Vreeland Village apartment. Mark had been arrested several times on drug possession charges.

In May, the housing authority sent Mary Williams, a resident of public housing since 1994, an eviction notice just about the same time she was laid off from her job. As part of a mediation agreement in housing court, Williams agreed to bar her son from coming to her home in exchange for being able to stay on the premises. Mark is in the Passaic County Jail awaiting his next court date.

“If I accepted my son, then I would have been homeless,” she said. “That (policy) pushes him into the street. He’s really immature. Now, he’s going to be worse with no support, no foundation.”

Williams, a single mother, said that her son had been unruly and depressed for several years. Williams said she blames herself for not having paid enough attention to him, having worked many 10-hour days at her job. Williams tried to enroll Mark in a drug rehab program, but her insurance refused to pay for the treatment, she said.

Williams said she understands the reasons for the policy and values the housing authority’s efforts to keep the apartments safe. “I want to be able to walk peacefully, too,” she said. “I don’t want to have to worry that some guy is going to be breaking into my house.”

Jackson, whose son Calvin caused her to be listed for eviction, said that her son is bipolar and harbors a lot of anger. She said his father has not been a part of their lives.

“He needs to be evaluated and counseled — someone to talk to.”

Once on the eviction list, the matter is referred to a mediator and most cases are resolved to the tenants’ benefit, Snyder said. In some cases, when the mediator cannot resolve matters the case is referred to a judge, he said. Those put on the “no trespass” list are forbidden to set foot on any Housing Authority property.

Jackson said she is worried about the future because she has three grandchildren living with her, a 4-year-old, and twin 1-year-olds. Jackson said she too is bipolar and receives a $600-a-month Social Security disability check. Jackson said if she is evicted, she and her grandchildren will be out on the street.

Advocates say that kicking out those with trouble does not resolve some of the complicated issues they face: drug abuse, poverty and, in many cases, untreated mental illness.

“The one strike policy is easy to apply, but actually dealing with the psychological needs, evaluating households, and determining who is the victim of drugs and who is profiting from drugs, that, they always don’t do,” said John Bart, a an attorney for Northeast New Jersey Legal Services.

He also said the policy unfairly deems tenants guilty by association.

“I don’t think innocent heads of households should lose their public housing because of acts by other people that they are not aware of or in control,” he said.

Bart said, often in his one strike cases, his clients have various disabilities that could impair their ability to understand the rules, read or understand notices.

He will argue in court to prevent an eviction that the Housing Authority did not give his clients the extra accommodation it is required to provide under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Snyder, the director of the city Housing Authority, said he feels sympathetic toward residents and their problems. But, he added, over the past several years, with national cutbacks for housing authorities, officials have tighter resident services budgets and the focus has been placed on programs for younger children.

“I’d loved to be the mental health agency, the social agency,” Snyder said. “But we are a housing authority. We don’t have the financial wherewithal to provide the services that every resident needs or claims to need.”




One response

31 12 2007

Housing agency tough on drugs…

I’d say they are 40 years to late but then again–better late than never. now will they adhere to their policies or exempt certain people.

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