In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II

The following is the second of a two-part report on dangerous physical conditions in CHA buildings. This report was occasioned by the civil trial arising out of the 1994 incident in which two boys, ages 10 and 11, dropped five-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a window in an unsecured vacant unit of a CHA high-rise at the Darrow Homes. The Morse family sued the CHA and a private management company, Diversified Realty Group Inc., charging that they were liable in Eric’s death due to their failure to screen access to the building and to secure vacant units. In Part I we reported on current conditions at the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens—unsecured vacant units, unrestricted access to the roofs of high-rise buildings—similar to those implicated in the death of Eric Morse. Part II below reports on some strategies developed at Stateway Gardens for addressing these conditions.

Young child standing by grate on landing.On November 7, 2001, the suit brought by the family of Eric Morse against the CHA and Diversified Realty Group Inc. was settled. The CHA and Diversified will pay the family $2.75 million. (Another defendant in the suit—Digby’s Detective & Security Service—agreed in June to pay the Morse family $800,000 to settle its claim.) The settlement was announced on the eve of jury selection. And it came ten days after a deposition by former CHA director Vince Lane in which he said that the housing authority had failed to follow its own policies with respect to the securing of vacant units.

The disconnect between policy and implementation acknowledged by Mr. Lane in his deposition is illustrated by a sequence of events at Stateway Gardens. And a strategy developed by the LAC and management company in response to this chronic problem suggests a remedy that could be adopted at other CHA developments.

On June 8, 2001, a meeting was convened by Duwain Bailey, Director of Operations for the CHA, in an effort to resolve various issues that had arisen between the Stateway LAC and the management company, DSSA Management, Inc. (Don S. Samuelson & Associates). In attendance were Francine Washington and Vera Miles, President and Vice-President respectively of the LAC, Don S. Samuelson of DSSA, and myself.

Among the issues raised by the LAC on this occasion was the problem of unrestricted access to the roofs of the Stateway high-rises. We had repeatedly raised this concern in the past. Yet the doors remained open.

On June 11, participants in the June 8 meeting received a memo from Mr. Samuelson in which he reported on the actions DSSA had taken in response to various issues discussed at the meeting.

With respect to roof access, Mr. Samuelson wrote:

Continuation of Mr. Samuelson letter.

This statement was made at a time when roof doors were in fact open throughout the development. One need not assume bad faith in this matter. The essential point stands forth more clearly, if one assumes a breakdown in the chain of command—a directive was given but not implemented. Under such circumstances, in the absence of on-the-ground monitoring, how would Mr. Samuelson, Ms. Washington, and Mr. Bailey have become aware of a clear and present danger to residents which each in their respective roles has a responsibility to address? Would it have been necessary for a child to fall from the roof of a seventeen story building? Or perhaps for someone on the street to be hit by a rock thrown from a rooftop?

This is a concrete, specific instance of a fundamental problem that touches every dimension of CHA’s operations: a profound disorder in language—in the relationship of words to their referents—that has devastating impact on those who live in communities such as Stateway Gardens. Look at Mr. Samuelson’s letter again. Consider the relationship of those words in an official document addressed to the LAC and CHA to the realities on the ground reported in “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part I.”

I do not mean to single out Mr. Samuelson. Rather, I am concerned to make a general point by way of a particular situation I know directly. The disconnect between the policy discourse about public housing and the facts on the ground is such that it is possible to say almost anything without being disciplined by observable realities. Thus we are told that the relocation process is working smoothly, that the “service connector” program is connecting residents to services, that property managers are being held to professional standards of performance, and so on. However much we might wish that these things were true throughout the city, what if they are not? What if various programs are not working as intended? What if they are breaking down or are unrealized at the point of implementation? What if they are working at some sites but not at others? What if the roof doors are in fact open? How will we know?

We posted “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part I” on Sunday, June 17. The CHA responded swiftly. On Tuesday, June 19, Duwain Bailey came to Stateway and summoned Doran Harper, Director of Operations at DSSA, to a meeting with Ms. Washington and myself. Mr. Bailey demanded that DSSA immediately address the problem of unrestricted access to the roof. Mr. Harper reported that DSSA had done so over the previous twenty-four hours—with the exception of one roof door that was in the process of being repaired.

This meeting set in motion a process of negotiation that resulted in DSSA contracting with the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC), a resident organization that works closely with the LAC, to provide continuous monitoring of physical conditions in Stateway buildings.

Kenya Richmond and Andre Williams of the NCC walk each building twice a week. They check every floor. Using a checklist they have developed, they record the following information: unsecured doors and windows in vacant units; unsecured laundry rooms, utility closets, roof doors; trash in common areas; lights out; and the condition of the elevators. At the end of each day, the reports are faxed and/or e-mailed to DSSA and the LAC.

This simple program has proved a cost-effective way of accomplishing multiple ends:

  • It provides the means for the residents’ elected representatives to exercise informed oversight of the management company’s performance.
  • It provides the management company with information that enables it to deploy staff resources on a priority basis.
  • It provides a means for the management company to assess staff performance. On the basis of the monitoring reports, DSSA terminated two janitors and suspended several others.
  • It generates a cumulating record useful to the CHA and others. The information base produced by building monitoring can serve to make monitoring at other levels—e.g., CHA’s internal “quality control” efforts—more effective.
  • It establishes the infrastructure for information gathering and outreach for other purposes.
  • It accomplishes the above ends through resident employment.

After five months, building monitoring is firmly established at Stateway Gardens. According to Ms. Washington of the LAC, it has contributed to improved performance and responsiveness by Mr. Harper and his staff. And Mr. Harper reports that when he recently asked the DSSA management staff whether they thought monitoring should be continued, they unanimously supported the program.

On the basis of our experience at Stateway, it is clear that building monitoring could easily be established at developments throughout the city. The flow of information generated by on-the-ground monitoring of physical conditions would enhance the effectiveness of all parties—resident leaders, private management, CHA—in the performance of their roles. Most important, it would contribute in direct, immediate ways to the safety and well-being of CHA residents and their children.

Coco’s Door

Catherine Means and her children outside her apartment.

Catherine Means—Coco—and her children outside her apartment at 3544 South State Street.

Catherine Means has a great view. Known as Coco to her friends, she lives on the tenth floor of 3544 South State Street at the Stateway Gardens public housing development. The scene framed by her living room windows takes in the Bronzeville neighborhood and in the distance the blue of Lake Michigan. It is dominated by the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department. Located two blocks away at 35th and Michigan, the 100,000 square foot structure is a powerful presence—especially at night when it stands illuminated amid dark streets.

Coco is twenty-five years old. She has two daughters—Aquanique, five years old, and Unique, seven months old—and has lived in her two bedroom apartment since 1996.

On the evening of Friday, November 2, she and her children were visiting her sister in North Kenwood—”We were having fun, playing cards and all”—when she received a phone call at about 10:00 PM from a neighbor.

“You need to come home,” the neighbor told her. “The police just kicked in your door.”

Coco called a cab and returned to Stateway.

“I left my kids at my sister’s house, cause I didn’t want them to see it. When I got back to the building, I could see from the street that my door was open. The elevator wasn’t working. So I ran up the stairs to the tenth floor and through my door—I didn’t have to open it.”

Coco's front door after police kicked it in.

Coco’s front door on the night of November 2. Using a disposable camera, she documented the damage done by the police.

In the living room the sofa had been upended, and a large ceramic statue of a cat lay smashed on the floor. In the bedroom she shares with her baby, drawers had been emptied. Clothes and diapers were scattered on the floor.

“When I came into the apartment, a cat jumped out at me from my front closet. There were two more cats in the back. I started making noise, and some rats ran out.”

“The cats chased the rats in?” I asked.

“The rats probably chased the cats in,” she replied.

Other intruders, she suspects, also entered her apartment, after the police left. Some food (“lunch meats and chicken”) was missing; also an old stereo, a broken VCR, and her children’s rings had disappeared. “Little things,” she said. “The sort of stuff a resident would take.”

DiMario Nichols, Coco’s cousin, lives in the building. He encountered the police just as they were about to enter the apartment.

“I was going up to her place to get something to eat,” he recalled. “I came up the stairs and saw the police knocking on her door.”

Four officers stood at Coco’s door. Behind them, the police headquarters glowed in the near distance. One of them had a sledgehammer. His name, according to DiMario, is Macintosh.

“Macintosh began to hit the door. One, two, three, four times. Then he saw me and yelled, ‘Get the hell away from here before we lock you up.’ One of them followed me to make sure I went back down the stairs. As I walked away, I heard them hit the door a fifth time. ‘We’re in,’ one of them said.”

The police appear to have found nothing in Coco’s apartment. They made no arrest. Having smashed in her door and damaged her property, they made no effort to contact her.

She contacted them: she called 911 and reported that her apartment had been broken into.

Half an hour later, two police officers appeared at her damaged door.

“Who do you think would do this to you?” one of them asked.

“I know who did it—the police.”

“You can’t just say that, ma’am,” one of the officers protested.

They gave her a piece of paper—”General Offense Case Report #661465″—that describes the offense as “burglary” and “forcible entry.”

“Don’t touch anything,” they told her. “We’re going to send out a technician to get fingerprints and take pictures.” No one came. Coco called the police again. Two hours later the same two officers returned. “Don’t worry about it,” they told her. “You can clean up your house now.”

Coco's smashed front door and overturned baby stroller.
Smashed ceramic statue in Coco's apartment.

Ceramic cat statue in pieces on the floor, after the police searched Coco’s apartment.

Coco restored order to her home. “I cleaned up the mess. I put my ironing board across the door so that rats wouldn’t come in. Then I put the door back together like a puzzle, locked it, and went to sleep.”

The next day a janitor jerryrigged the fragments of the door together with a piece of plywood.

Coco has had other recent encounters with the police. A month ago officers came to her apartment. “A boy had come up here, but he didn’t have drugs or nothing on him.” Words were exchanged. The officers handcuffed her in front of her children. “They told me they would call DCFS and have them take away my kids.” They patted her daughter down and checked her baby’s diaper for drugs.

“My daughter doesn’t like the police, cause they’re always being rude around us. That’s sad. Most little kids like the police, but she doesn’t.”

Coco doesn’t want her family to be a casualty of the ongoing maneuvers of the police and counter-moves of the young men, some of them friends of hers, who sell drugs in the lobby and flee up into the building when the police approach.

“I don’t let gangbangers into my house like some people do. I have a five-year-old child and a seven-month-old baby. If I let those boys in my apartment and the police find drugs or guns and I get put out, they’re not going to find a place for me and my children to live.”

When the police come to her door, Coco said, she lets them in. “If I were home that night, I would of opened the door for them.” She doesn’t understand why it was necessary to break down her door with a sledgehammer; nor why, having done so and found nothing, the police didn’t contact her and apologize.

“What they did was rude,” she said. “Very rude.”