Mary Williams vs. Drugs - Staying and Fighting

Washington D.C., in both its failures and successes, provides evidence that emphasis on drug law enforcement will have to give way to self-help, prevention, and treatment - a 4-part series begins today.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MARY WILLIAMS has done everything society would like to see poor, urban blacks do. She got off welfare, got a job, kicked a heroin habit, is saving money to buy a home, and she is attentively raising two grandchildren. But Mary Williams is not getting any help. She cannot escape the drug culture that surrounds her.

For two years she tried to get authorities - police, public housing officials, human services agencies - to pay attention to her, to help her get rid of a crack house in her apartment building.

In the end, it was not an anti-drug policy nor any public official that came to her aid. It was a dangerous fire that erupted in the crack house and nearly killed her family.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

``I haven't lived in peace for years,'' she said as she cleaned her smoke and water damaged apartment the day after the fire last November.

``I felt calmness last night, I slept,'' she says of the fiery end to the steady flow of unseemly characters coming to buy drugs and menace the apartment stairwell.

Ask Ms. Williams about this city's war on drugs, which increasingly relies on citizen participation, and she expresses anger and frustration. Anti-drug policies did nothing for her, she says.

Mary Williams's story is the quintessential case study of how illegal drug abuse can fall between the cracks in public policy. While hers may be a worst-case scenario, it did happen. Moreover, parts of her story are echoed throughout the city's black neighborhoods and massive, unpatrolled public housing projects, where drug abuse is most noticeable.

UNIVERSITY PLACE is a cozy street of red-brick row houses tucked off the 14th Street corridor of drunks, prostitutes, and drugs. It is typical of many of Washington's black neighborhoods, with a mixture of scattered-site public housing units, rental properties, and owner-occupied buildings. School children bounce home keeping their distance from milling groups of people they matter-of-factly identify as ``pipeheads,'' or drug addicts.

It is part of the Shaw neighborhood that in another time was the heart of black prosperity, where legends like Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway were familiar faces.

Mary Williams and two other single, black, welfare mothers moved into a government-subsidized, three-unit University Place row house in 1980.

As Mary languished on welfare and heroin in those early years, two of her four daughters also sank into drug addiction. One daughter left Mary with a toddler to raise. Mary says the child caused her such guilt about the family's drug use that she picked up a Bible one day and vowed to never touch heroin again.

It was her downstairs neighbor, Paula Williams (no relation), who helped Mary stick to that resolve while the three tenants of the row house became allies in their struggle to get off welfare.

``We had the most fascinating house on the block.... We planted and put plants in the halls, we kept the grass cut. It was beautiful and didn't look like public housing,'' recalls Jeannette Benboo, who lives on the third floor.

While Mary and Jeannette moved off of welfare into jobs - child-care worker and home health aide - Paula remained on welfare with her two children.

Ironically, it was Paula, the most vocally opposed to drugs of the three, who was swept away at the crest of the crack-cocaine wave in 1988.

Her two upstairs neighbors say they began to notice the telltale signs of the problem: At the first of the month when the welfare check would arrive, Paula would take the money and disappear, leaving her two preschool children to fend for themselves and wander along University Place. The walls around Paula's front door became black from the soot of crack-smoking. Men who came home with Paula were believed by neighbors to be dealers, because crowds of addicts would begin loitering around her apartment. Paula apparently quit paying her bills, and the electricity was off for months at a time. Mary found addicts crashing on mattresses in the building basement; they told her that they paid Paula to use the space for their drug activities.

Paula was one of the unprecedented number of poor, black women across the country introduced to drug addiction with the advent of the cheap, quick high of crack cocaine. Crack changed the dynamics of the drug market: Inexpensive and widely available, it made competition among drug dealers stiff and sparked the kind of gun-play that has made this city the murder capital of the nation, say law enforcement officials.

Found on a nearby stoop the day after her apartment burned, Paula spoke with a dazed expression, admitting her crack use and offering this explanation:

``Crack is completely different [from other drugs] because the effect doesn't last as long, maybe three to five minutes, and so you consume a lot more of it.... Before you know it, you're hooked up in something you don't understand and pretty soon you go so far out you never come down. It affects people differently, but it's relaxing to me.''

Crack not only transformed Paula, but the whole University Place neighborhood, say residents.

``The neighborhood got real lively with drugs in the past three years,'' says Joyce Toler, a Federal Bureau of Investigation technician who lives two doors from Mary. ``My five-year-old cannot play outside unless I'm home, and I walk a block out of my way [to avoid the crowds at another alleged crack house nearby].''

As the problem mounted, Mary and Jeannette spent increasing amounts of their nights watching at their windows. In 1988, they began flagging down police patrol cars and making calls to 911 to report the goings on. One night it would be a gunshot, another a fistfight, and on other occasions it was simply the crack-cocaine fumes wafting out of Paula's apartment that became too much for them.

Mary, a pretty woman who declines to give her age but looks youthful for a grandmother, furrows her brow in anger when recounting her struggle to be heard. But her hands frequently move into a tight ball beneath her chin in a signal of her earnest attempt to keep from being shrill, to keep her anger in check.

``We didn't run to the police every time something happened,'' she says. ``But over the period of two solid years we called police maybe 10 times, and Child Protective [Services]. We offered the beat [police] officers the front door keys to the building. We wrote letters to housing [officials] and called the National Capital Housing hot line once a week for a while,'' she says.

``Two officers told me they knew very well this was a crack house. And they both told me they'd have to go in and make a buy [in order to legally justify an arrest],'' she says.

But there was no apparent response because activity at Paula's continued as usual.

``In July 1989, they [child protective services] took a child away'' from Paula, says Mary. When she and several other neighbors were interviewed by police about treatment of the child, they also told police about the drug activities in the house.

Nonetheless, activity in Paula's apartment continued as usual.

Last summer, a plainclothes police squad broke down the front door of the building and arrested a man they had followed to Paula's apartment, apparently as part of some other investigation. When a policeman came back to fix the front door, Mary says she felt sure she had found a sympathetic ear as she told him about the drug activities in the apartment.

Still, drug activity was as lively as ever beneath Mary's apartment.

``A crack house is horrible. There are nasty, dirty people coming around.

``I'd be scared to be here alone. The kids had to stop playing in the yard,'' Mary explains.

Mary didn't keep records of her complaints to authorities.

But housing officials acknowledge numerous calls from her. A check of police-department computer records shows only one formal complaint from her address in 1989. Police Officer John Shelton, who patrols in the neighborhood, acknowledges informally fielding several of her complaints, and a spokesperson for the city Department of Human Services, which oversees child protective services, will confirm only that Paula Williams's ``family has been known to us in the past.''

LATE on Nov. 5, 1990, Mary awoke choking from smoke billowing up from Paula's apartment. Looking out her second-floor window, Mary was horrified to see Jeannette and her children edging along outside third-floor windows, making their way to the next apartment building. Although some of the addicts who frequented the building were beckoning to her from below, Mary, in her fiercely protective way, chose to risk leading her grandchildren down the dark and smoky stairwell rather than hand them out to people she didn't trust.

Mary marvels at the swarm of officialdom that descended on her doorstep the day after the fire: ``I never saw so many people in charge in one place.'' It was the first response she'd gotten from anyone official.

Housing officials that day offered to relocate Mary and Jeannette to another subsidized housing unit. The two women declined, figuring their main problem had been solved and that any other place in Washington was as likely to have a similar drug environment surrounding it.

Later in the day after the fire, Mary went into Paula's apartment for the first time in years to take a look.

Only the back bedroom was destroyed by fire. The rest of the apartment, smelling like chemicals, was an intact testament to what had been going on there for two years. Easily 100 cigarette lighters littered the floors, she says. Trash was scattered everywhere: One pile included several Odessa vodka bottles, a Steven King novel, a tax return, and a child's game called Twister. Every inch of kitchen counter was covered with pots and pans, some containing petrified food, others containing cobwebs. There was no refrigerator and no food in the cabinets. The toilet, stripped of hardware, had not been working - but had been used - for quite some time.

Later, the neighborhood was alive with rumors that men seen chasing Paula's boyfriend, perhaps over a drug deal gone awry, had returned to throw a Molotov cocktail through the back window. Paula herself claims this was the case. But the Monitor could find no witnesses to such an event.

City fire inspector Robert Britt, who investigated the scene and deemed it an accidental fire caused by discarded smoking material, was skeptical of the story.

``This was a very typical crack house.... We have a fire in a crack house like this about once a week,'' he explains. ``They always try to throw you off [with stories like Paula's],'' he says, because the people don't want to be blamed for their carelessness.

Paula's apartment has been boarded up by the housing authority. She has been seen on neighborhood stoops and sleeping in an abandoned car. She says her children are with her mother.

Mary is under no illusion that her neighborhood is clean, but she says she feels completely at ease in her home now.

MARY WILLIAMS couldn't get away from Washington's drug environment, even when she did everything she was supposed to do.

Why did nothing happen if so many people in positions to do something about it knew of her problem? Tomorrow's story follows the official side of the tale.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...