Tomorrow night could be the last night that three families in the lunch-pail neighborhood of South Boston spend in their own beds.
They face eviction from their public-housing apartments - but not for anything they did. Rather it's what their teenage sons did: Last fall, the three boys - all of whom are of Irish descent - allegedly assaulted at knife point two Hispanic neighbors and threw rocks into a Hispanic family's apartment.
In a case that's roiling many of the city's Irish residents, the Boston Housing Authority is invoking a federal "one-strike-you're-out" law to evict the families. Housing officials nationwide have used this law since 1996 to summarily evict drug dealers and other troublesome tenants. But in holding entire families responsible for the wayward acts of their sons, Boston's authorities are testing the limits of a law that aims to reduce violent crime and racism in America's public-housing projects.
The teens were ousted in December, and now housing officials say their parents also must leave. Authorities say they must take a strong stand in order to banish crime and racism from this neighborhood.
The families respond that they're being unjustly punished for the acts of their children. The boys don't deny being involved but say they weren't the instigators and race was not a motivation. Police are still investigating.
A state appeals court agreed last week and temporarily blocked the eviction. The case goes back to court tomorrow, when housing officials will make the case for throwing the families out now. The judge could allow the eviction to proceed tomorrow or postpone it.
Although the one-strike law has been used nationwide, never has it sparked such outcry as in South Boston - or Southie, as it's known here. (It's the tough neighborhood portrayed in the movie "Good Will Hunting.")
"The people of South Boston applaud what the [housing authority] is trying to do," says Daniel Dilorati, the attorney for one family, "but to summarily evict a whole family is too tough."
On the streets of the Old Colony housing project, most residents profess solidarity with the Berry, Beatty, and Duquette families. "I feel terrible for them," says one resident walking home on a recent evening. "They're just a bunch of fresh kids. They didn't mean no harm. And now the families are getting kicked out too."
But this resident's initial expression of sympathy quickly lapses into concern about bands of teens slashing car tires at night. "I guess something needs to be done," she says. "Maybe these evictions will set an example."
When asked for her name, she declines. "Maybe they'll throw rocks at me," she says, edging toward home. "Sometimes it's like a little mafia around here."
As darkness draws nearer, residents hurry into the sanctuary of the project's three-story brick-and-concrete-block buildings.
It's this atmosphere of fear that the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) hopes to alleviate by using the zero-tolerance law. It cuts the length of the eviction process from as long as three years to as little as six weeks. Nationwide, evictions jumped 40 percent in the six months after the law was signed in March 1996.
Meanwhile, in Southie, authorities say their hard-line response is merited, because the incidents may have been racially motivated, which the teens deny. But there's a history of strong feelings about race in Southie. The opposition to integrating the city's public schools in the 1970s was anchored here.
"There's a commonly held belief that anything goes in public housing," says BHA spokeswoman Hilary Jones. "We want to send a message that you're not allowed to behave differently here." She notes that all BHA leases hold parents responsible for their children and says the BHA is acting just as any other landlord would - evicting troublesome tenants.
BUT many say the BHA is stretching the law too far. Some say the BHA is overly sensitive to racism - and is engaging in a reverse racism that unfairly targets whites.
Keith Berry is one of the accused teens. He volunteers at a local church and had no criminal record before the December incident. His parents couldn't have predicted that he would be involved in such an crime, their lawyer says. Therefore, they shouldn't be evicted.
But the other two teens did have prior criminal records, and the BHA says it warned the families repeatedly that their children's misdeeds could get them all evicted.
Another resident, teenager Keith Colantonio, says now that the three boys are gone, the complex is more calm. They "would throw bricks at us," he says. But he's ambivalent about the families being thrown out. "I don't know," he says, "it seems a little harsh."
None of the families is talking to the press, but their stories have garnered support, especially from politicians from Southie. "I don't understand how putting a family into homelessness is going to serve anyone," says city councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen. "The BHA is not like any other landlord," she says. "When someone is evicted, their options are limited."
Last week, Massachusetts Housing Court Chief Justice E. George Daher was sympathetic, but steadfast: "Something has to be done to bring order."