Living with fear

Feb 23, 2000 at 12:00 am

During the five years he has lived at the State Fair senior citizens complex on Detroit’s northwest side, Elmer McCreary said he has had to sleep in his car twice. The elevator was out of commission, and the lingering effects of a stroke kept the 84-year-old from climbing three flights to his apartment.

But what’s most troubling about living in public housing is the fear that brought McCreary and about 60 other seniors to a Detroit City Council hearing last week.

"I’m an old vet, and I’m afraid," said McCreary, who served during World War II and who broke down in tears before the council.

Many of the residents from senior complexes and other housing projects around the city complained that security guards are needed 24 hours a day. Some said that intercoms and security cameras are broken. Others said that publicly shared TVs and VCRs have been stolen, pay phones and fire extinguishers are missing, and strangers walk the halls making tenants fearful to leave their apartments.

Sara Horner, 64, rolled to the podium in a wheelchair and said that she was frightened when a man confronted her in a laundry room at the Jeffries project on the west side. Though Horner was not harmed, she said that security guards are needed around the clock.

The crowd applauded when 83-year-old Pearl Reynolds shouted, "We want our building back." Reynolds, who lives at Elmwood Towers at Chene and Lafayette, told the council that her senior facility is filled with children and others who do not live there.

"At one point, we couldn’t sleep at night – it was so loud – and people were drinking in the lobby and fighting," Reynolds told the Metro Times. She said that she has been complaining for four years to the Detroit Housing Commission, which oversees public housing; only in the last six months has there been some improvement, she added.

City Council President Gil Hill said he called the hearing after repeatedly hearing such complaints. He read a list of questions that he sent to the housing commission, inquiring about residents’ concerns. But Hill said that the commission never responded – though the letter was sent a year ago.

John Nelson, who has been the commission director for nine months, responded during the meeting that he never received Hill’s letter. He said that he is aware of security problems and that every facility has guards from 11:30 p.m, to 7:30 a.m., but that there isn’t money for 24-hour security.

"We have been trying to figure out how we can fund such an effort," said Nelson, which would add $1.5 million to the $3 million security budget. The housing commission’s total budget is about $25 million, according to Nelson.

He also said that safety doors have been ordered for each facility, and a security system is being installed at the Jeffries project, which the police will use to monitor every public housing complex in the city.

But some council members, who said they have heard the same complaints from seniors for years, were not satisfied with Nelson’s answers.

Council member Maryann Mahaffey requested that Nelson put some of his answers in writing, including when the new safety doors would be installed and how he arrived at the $1.5 million cost for 24-hour security.

Councilman Nicholas Hood III suggested that the council try to set aside money for 24-hour security when they begin reviewing the mayor’s city budget proposal next month.

The crowd cheered Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr.’s suggestion that casino revenue could pay for 24-hour security.

Cockrel also asked Nelson if he intended to present a plan to the council that would eliminate city authority over the housing commission. Nelson told the Metro Times that Detroit’s housing commission is one of the few in the country that reports to both the city and federal governments. Nelson said that having "two bosses" makes it difficult to accomplish anything.

"Right now we have to follow two sets of directions, one from the city and one from the federal government," he said.

But some council members are leery of losing local control.

In light of the tenants’ complaints, Cockrel said doing away with city oversight "scares the hell out of me."

Nelson said that he will present a plan to eliminate local control in 60 days, and a written response regarding the hearing is due next week.