Sometimes, all it takes is a card-game squabble to evict a public housing family.
Ask Sheryl (not her real name). Sheryl's daughters and some other teenage girls were sitting on a neighbor's porch, playing the card game "Pittypat" for coins. After one girl lost but refused to cough up 50 cents, the fussing began -- some name-calling, a little shoving, one bloody lip.
Sheryl's 13-year-old daughter, the one with the split lip, saw a police car driving by and flagged it down. In the end, the officer interviewed all the girls at the station and judged the 13-year-old to be the victim. The 15-year-old spent a few hours in juvenile lockup but wasn't charged; she never even had to appear in juvenile court. "No weapons or nothing -- it was just a fight," Sheryl says. Within a few days, all of the girls were running in and out of each other's houses as if nothing happened.
But two months later, the housing police knocked on the door of Sheryl's two-story apartment and handed her an eviction notice, an order to vacate the premises within 10 days, courtesy of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the aggressive way it's been enforcing the federal "one strike and you're out" policy.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- which funds the nation's public housing agencies -- has directed that the one-strike policy be used sparingly. "Eviction should be the last option explored, after all others have been exhausted," wrote HUD Secretary Mel Martinez on April 16, 2002, in a letter to all public housing directors. But at HANO, the first step seems to be an eviction notice -- none of the residents interviewed for this story were offered any alternatives beforehand.
Sheryl was determined not to leave her apartment without a fight. She called New Orleans Legal Assistance and was connected to attorney Laura Tuggle, who has been representing her in this case.
Still, many residents don't believe that they can fight HANO and win, says one of Sheryl's neighbors. "Once Housing gives them their notice, a lot of people just hurry up and move," she says.
A TURANCY VIOLATION. MISSED CURFEW. A swiped book bag at school. In recent months, HANO has been serving more eviction notices for juvenile offenses, many of them minor.
The federal one-strike policy has been around for a while -- a form of it first passed the U.S. Congress in 1988, and local public housing agencies such as HANO have been enforcing it for more than a decade. What's new, residents say, is HANO's dogged pursuit of petty offenders, particularly juveniles and their families.
An informal review of the 2003 and 2004 HANO one-strike evictions filed in New Orleans' First City Court shows that approximately 1 out of 5 evictions were based on the actions of juveniles. Most of these seemed to come to HANO's attention through NOPD incident reports, which are included in the filings.
But HANO itself may be violating a law -- one that governs the privacy of juvenile records. In the summer of 2002, HANO filed a motion with Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, Section E, asking for disclosure of guilty pleas for two children who lived in the housing projects. HANO attorney Glynn Alexander says that he has received such paperwork on other occasions. But this time, Judge Mark Doherty scheduled hearings on the issue. Alexander dropped the matter, deciding instead to build his own case for eviction without the guilty pleas.
"I'm still going forward," Alexander says. "That's not going to stop me from evicting their parents."
It's not difficult for HANO to get information about delinquent juveniles. "If any district officer arrests someone from the housing projects, we get those reports," says Alexander. In the past, he says, the reports were delayed by several months, but lately he's been getting them more swiftly.
"We are able to release that information," contends NOPD spokesperson Capt. Marlon Defillo. He produces a faxed copy of Article 412 of the Louisiana Children's Code, with three sections bracketed in black marker. Those sections describe a narrow set of circumstances when the district attorney, police, or courts may release information to the public about a juvenile offense.
The police department is misreading the law, asserts New Orleans Legal Assistance lawyer Tuggle. "According to the statute upon which the NOPD is relying, they are only allowed to release 'identifying information' about a child who's at least 14 and who's alleged to have committed a crime of violence or who's been found guilty of a serious drug charge," she says. And the term "identifying information" means only the child's name, age and the charge, says Tuggle, not wholesale releases of police reports.
Lately, Tuggle and other legal-aid attorneys report "numerous" HANO evictions based on minor offenses and involving children as young as 10. In no way does the statute permit the release of those records, Tuggle says. "So it's pretty clear to me that the NOPD is releasing information they shouldn't be releasing and that HANO is getting reports they shouldn't be getting."
In other cities --including Chicago and San Francisco -- housing authorities and police departments stopped sharing confidential juvenile records following lawsuits filed by housing advocates. Kate Walz, an attorney from the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, got involved a few years ago, because the Chicago Housing Authority was evicting entire families for the acts of children as young as 11. "It doesn't make a lot of sense," says Walz. "Evicting an 11-year-old and his family does not improve community safety."
Young children are also prompting eviction proceedings in New Orleans. Last January, in the B.W. Cooper housing development, police picked up an 11-year-old who was living with his aunt, her two daughters and two grandchildren. The boy had allegedly thrown a plastic bag containing several pieces of crack out of an apartment window. Shortly afterward, his aunt was served with an eviction notice.
That juvenile's name and complete police report are, by law, confidential. However, as a result of HANO's filed eviction notice, that information can now be found in the public files of First City Court. A few of those files also contain judgments from juvenile court, which also -- by law -- are typically sealed.
This causes further harm to juveniles, Tuggle maintains. "From our review of the federal law governing housing authorities and state law governing confidentiality of juvenile records, both the housing authority and NOPD could be breaking the law," she says. As a result, they may both be subject to civil and criminal penalties.
Barbara Jackson, who led the resident council at the St. Thomas project for more than 20 years, has some advice for any parent who believes that HANO has wrongly obtained confidential juvenile files. "Every mother needs to ask HANO, 'How and why did you get that information?'" says Jackson. "Because if they're asking us to be accountable, they need to be accountable too."
"I'M NOT GOING TO SAY MY KIDS ARE ANGELS," Carlota Smith says. "But they're not bad kids either." Ask any of her neighbors, she says. "They'll tell you that my sons are very respectful, that they don't mess with anyone."
Smith and her three sons -- Jeffrey, 15; Justin, 11; and Lamar, 10 -- live in a two-bedroom apartment in the B.W. Cooper housing development, formerly known as the Calliope. Their fire escape overlooks a courtyard edged with rows of tall iron crosses that once held clotheslines but now stand unused and empty. Smith lives a few flights up, via a narrow concrete stairwell.
Inside the narrow apartment, the walls are painted blue and the rooms dotted with children's artwork and toys. One shelf is covered with photos and awards that show each of her sons' strengths. "Jeffrey always did love sports; Justin likes art -- he likes to draw. Lamar likes to sing," she says. Justin shyly points to one of his awards, a first place in French. It sits next to a Martin Luther King Day certificate given to Lamar, who didn't start speaking until he was about 4 years old but in 2002 memorized and recited King's entire "I Have a Dream" speech.
Smith and her family have lived in this apartment for nearly 10 years. But they're currently fighting to keep it. That's because Jeffrey was arrested last spring and charged with trying to rob one of the row of small stores on nearby Claiborne Avenue that serve the more than 4,000 residents of the B.W. Cooper.
Around 6:45 p.m. on the day of the robbery, according to police reports, three young men -- ages 14, 14 and 18 -- walked into the store, posing as customers. The oldest kid, identified as James Dawson, strode up to the Plexiglas booth and pointed a gun at the cashier, saying, "Give me the f--king money." The clerk dropped to the floor and dialed 911, but while she was crouched down, another customer -- an older man -- walked in the front door. According to the NOPD incident report, "This apparently scared the perpetrators, who fled the store together."
Jeffrey's account differs in a few key areas. His friend's mom, he says, was hungry for Asian food and so she sent them to the store for shrimp fried rice and an eggroll. They were waiting for their order when in walked Dawson, who Jeffrey knew from neighborhood basketball games. Initially, Dawson tried to rob them, he says. When he approached the store clerk and pointed the blue steel .38 at her, the two younger boys seized the moment and ran out the door.
Jeffrey spent two months in juvenile lockup while the case made its way through juvenile court. In the end, the district attorney's office didn't prosecute him or his friend.
Smith and her family are trying to move on with their lives. His mother decided Jeffrey should spend some time away from the project and so now, every weekday, he takes the bus down to the Ninth Ward, to her alma mater, Frederick A. Douglass Senior High School. He's been getting Bs and Cs, he says, and he hopes to make wide receiver on the football team next fall.
HANO, however, is pursuing the eviction. According to federal law, if the charge is violent or drug-related, one-strike evictions do not require a conviction. These kids' case is a textbook example of that, says HANO attorney Alexander. "I don't know what happened to them in juvenile court," he says, "and that really is no moment to me."
This stance doesn't fit with the realities of life in the inner city, says Barbara Jackson. "It's well known that, if you're a young black man, just standing on the corner talking, you can be arrested," she says. In 2003, the district attorney screened more than 20,000 Orleans Parish criminal cases, according to spokeswoman Melanie Roussell. Of those, 9,625 -- 47 percent -- were accepted by the district attorney. Although there is no data on how many resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts, it's clear that those numbers would be even lower.
Jackson poses a question: If the district attorney doesn't find enough evidence to pursue even half of all arrests, why should HANO continue to treat all arrests like convictions? She notes that a HANO eviction casts a long shadow -- once a family is put out, HANO can deny housing assistance to them for at least three years. If they're St. Thomas residents waiting for relocation, they will be removed from that list. It's no wonder that mothers, seeing what's happened to their neighbors, have begun to take their sons off their HANO leases once they turn 18. "That way, if the police scoop up your son, the whole family won't be put out," one woman explains.
Jackson believes that HANO needs to, at the very least, look at how a given case was resolved in court. "I thought the law said, 'You're innocent until proven guilty,'" she says. "So are there two sets of laws, one for the rest of Louisiana and one for public housing residents?"
You couldn't do this to most people in America, says Ed Williams, president of the national group ENPHRONT (Everywhere, Now Public Housing Residents Organizing Nationally Together). "Tell someone who doesn't live in public housing that if you get arrested, even if you're not convicted, that doesn't matter, you're out. Tell them about public housing's trespassing rules, where if your son drops in to visit you and he's not on the lease, he can be arrested for trespassing. They would never believe it."
For her part, Carlota Smith would simply like to see the whole mess disappear. "It's been 10 years I've been living back here and Housing's had no trouble from me," she says. "So why are you still trying to put me out -- because I got a teenage son? There ain't no child that can be watched 24 hours a day."
"'ONE STRIKE AND YOU'RE OUT' -- that should be the law everywhere in America." With that pronouncement in his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton put new muscle behind a policy that had been in place since 1988.
"The only people who deserve to live in public housing are those who live responsibly there and those who honor the rule of the law," Clinton said. "This policy today is a clear signal to drug dealers and to gangs: If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing."
Almost no one will dispute the toll that drugs and violence have taken on the nation's housing projects. In June 2000, a Harvard University study found that "fear of crime" was the primary reason that Boston residents wanted to move out of public housing. The previous year, HUD released the report In the Crossfire: The Impact of Gun Violence on Public Housing Communities, which determined that 1 out of 100 public housing residents are victimized annually by gun violence, compared to 1 out of 250 in the nation's overall population. The report also noted that there is a reverse correlation between income and violent crime -- when income goes up, crime goes down. According to HANO, the average local public housing household makes $7,449 annually.
According to the most recent public housing crime data compiled by NOPD, New Orleans' housing developments saw 60 homicides during the first three quarters of 2003 -- more than 1 out of 4 of the city's overall murders for that same time period. Several years ago, 1 in 10 New Orleans residents lived in public housing. Now fewer than 1 out of 20 New Orleans residents live in developments such as the C.J. Peete (formerly the Magnolia), Iberville, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard, Desire, Guste, Fischer, and scattered-site housing like Press Park and Christopher Homes.
Courts, from the U.S. Supreme on down, have upheld one-strike evictions for housing project violence and drug activity -- even if the tenant had nothing to do with those crimes. Across the nation, people have been evicted for drugs brought in by their babysitter, estranged husband and home health worker. They've been put out for drug use by siblings, children and grandmothers, even when that the drugs were not used within their housing project.
The contrast is nearly unbelievable, says Ed Williams of the residents group ENPHRONT. "If you're a homeowner and your son gets caught with a bag of reefer, well, he's just caught with a bag of reefer and he suffers those consequences." Homeowners get federal subsidies -- tax credits -- every year, he says, without having to submit their family to a criminal records check prior to receipt. "Even if you hold a federal mortgage, that won't be canceled as a result of your son's drug arrest."
In June 1995, Louisiana's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld HANO's case against longtime Lafitte resident and "exemplary tenant" Virgie Green, who was evicted after a visiting acquaintance of her adult daughter sold drugs at Green's apartment. Then-Fourth Circuit judges Moon Landrieu and William Byrnes joined with the majority in supporting the eviction: "The question in this case is whether a Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) tenant may be evicted because a guest in her apartment had illegal drugs without her knowledge. The answer is yes."
That doesn't mean that HANO's hand is forced, however. In a second letter on the topic, sent from HUD to public housing directors in June 2002, HUD assistant secretary Michael Liu emphasized that agencies like HANO are not "required to evict an entire household -- or for that matter anyone -- every time a violation of the lease clause occurs."
This is particularly true with non-drug offenses, which are held to a higher standard: that the tenant's activity "threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of HANO's public housing premises." Sylvia Brennan, an attorney at the Washington-D.C. based National Housing Law Project, says that -- in order to evict -- housing authorities must go beyond proving criminal activity. "Unless it affects the health and safety of other residents, they don't have a leg to stand on," she says. Courts have cited this clause when striking down evictions based on nonviolent or minor charges.
The clause may also protect delinquent children. Some housing attorneys question whether juvenile offenses can even be legally characterized as criminal, since juvenile court proceedings are considered civil, not criminal.
The Rev. Bruce Davenport, whose church, St. John #5 Baptist, abuts the St. Bernard project, says he doesn't believe in the one-strike policy. "Being a minister, I believe in forgiveness," he says. He also believes in behavior modification and other ways of dealing with conflict. "Show people how to get along and you won't have to worry about a one-strike rule."
Ed Williams agrees. This is particularly crucial with delinquent children, who deserve positive alternatives, not one-strike policies, he says. For an example, he points to President George Bush's twin daughters and their well-publicized arrests for underage drinking. "My argument has always been that the Bush family could've faced eviction from the White House. After all, that's public housing," he says.
Despite the Bush daughters' problems, says Williams, they -- rightly -- were given a chance to get themselves back on track. That chance, Williams believes, should be offered to every other daughter and son in this country.
NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO, Tyra (not her real name), received an eviction notice as a result of a domestic dispute with her babies' daddy, who was at her apartment visiting his children. The charges were dropped. But ever since then, HANO has been trying to evict her. She's been fighting it, with the help of New Orleans Legal Assistance lawyer Tuggle.
Last week, HANO added another charge to her eviction notice -- one for her 11-year-old son, who pled guilty in August to trespassing on school property after he and a few little friends took a well-trod shortcut through an opening in their school's fence en route to a football game.
Sometimes Tyra feels like she's never going to be rid of this eviction threat. And if it's not one thing, it's another. Recently, her mother, who lives in the same project but on a different courtyard, got a trespassing charge visiting her.
Any non-resident sitting on a porch faces the same fate. "All day, every day, they're snatching people off the porches," she says. Sons who grew up in the projects and spent their entire youth there will drop in to visit their mothers and get hauled to jail for trespassing.
All of this signals a bigger problem, some residents say. HANO doesn't have any trust in its tenants, as people or as parents who want the best for their children. Sheryl gets up from the couch and stands in the sunshine near her open front door. Outside, a group of kids are playing on the dusty courtyard.
She points toward the courtyard. "When our children are playing out there, we listen, and if they start fighting, we go out and stop them," she says.
Even little things like that might surprise the powers-that-be at HANO, she says. "They think we ain't got no sense."
- David Rae Morris
- Attorney Laura Tuggle and other legal-aid lawyers report "numerous" HANO evictions involving children as young as 10 years old. Says Tuggle: "NOPD is releasing information they shouldn't be releasing and HANO is getting reports they shouldn't be getting."