- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

About a mile from the home of former Mayor Marion Barry sits a neighborhood in Southwest Washington that is trying to rebound from years of open-air drug sales, gunplay and squalid housing. Last summer things were so bad authorities made two adjacent streets, Elmira and Forrester SW, one-way streets, hoping to derail the illegal activities. They also boarded up several apartment buildings on Forrester that druggies and squatters had taken over. Then, as now, residents, most of them homeowners, were overwhelmed not just by crime but by trash-strewn alleyways, malodors and the deplorable condition of some of the privately owned apartment dwellings in their neighborhood. On Monday night, after months and months of complaining, the city was forced into action when news reports disclosed several families in a 12-unit building at 137 Forrester St. SW were living in squalor.

Monday night someone called 911 to report a fire at 137. When firefighters arrived, however, they found no blaze. But they did discover an alarming situation. Four families, including several children, were living amid garbage, feces, broken windows, no heat and no water. In one apartment garbage was piled four feet high. The stench was overwhelming.

The families, including a mother of seven, were assigned to 137 by social service workers yet none had a lease and the city reportedly was paying $1,100 a month for each occupied unit. Mayoral advisers also discovered something else on Tuesday: The building had not been inspected since 1994, which means it should not have been occupied in the first place. Moreover, no one, not even destitute families in need of emergency shelter, should have to call such a filthy place home.

The displaced families are in temporary shelter while housing, human service and law-enforcement authorities sort out the legal ramifications of the situation, including whether any housing and building codes were violated, who was ultimately responsible for placing the families and whether the children were abused or neglected.

Longtime residents, including those who live directly behind 137, began complaining several years back about the drug and trash problems. They not only directed their complaints to the Barry administration, but to their D.C. Council representative, Sandy Allen, as well several other Ward 8 advisers and activists. They also complained to the Williams administration. While several other buildings on Forrester were eventually condemned and boarded up in summer 1999, 137 remained occupied.

One neighborhood resident, asked by Arlo Wagner, a reporter for The Washington Times, whether she had ever entered 137 herself, said no. "I didn't know who or what I'd find there." That, of course, is understandable even perhaps knowing that children were "living" in the midst of such grime and crime.

She and other residents did the right thing by exposing the underbelly of the nation's capital by complaining to their duly elected leaders. And when all else failed, thank goodness someone called 911.

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