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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 / January 22, 1991


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.

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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.

``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.