(This is the second in a series of articles on the Northampton Housing Authority)
Forsander Apartment complex, Florence
For people-watchers, theres no shortage of interesting neighbors at the Forsander Apartments in Florence. For its first 20-odd years the place was quiet in the way housing for the elderly is supposed to be quiet.
But in the 1990s unseen tides began washing more shipwrecked people ashore at Forsander, a different breed of tenants. Younger people. The Northampton Housing Authority admitted more troubled tenants into its elderly housing, some of them disabled by alcoholism or drugs. People like Ricardo Barrett, who was arrested near Pulaski Park in 2001 for standing in front of a PVTA bus and not letting it leave. He wanted it to take him home. On the home front in 2002, a neighbor complained that Barrett was leaving cans of diesel fuel in the hallway, playing with a robot in the hallway, and blocking a neighbors back door with junk. He also told neighbors that he had a snake that could wriggle under their doors, so one woman took to blocking the crack under her door with towels and a rug. All these complaints went to the tenant union, which forwarded their letters to the housing authority.
Richard Foster was active in the Forsander Apartments Association from 1994 to November of 2002. He is a big gregarious guy in his 70s who sold insurance for John Hancock for many years, and managed their Greenfield office. He is no slouch. Today he is President of Canterbury Arms Association, a 76-unit federal housing complex managed by the Chicopee Housing Authority. He had two of the more troubled people in his building. He lost too many battles with the Northampton Housing Authority over maintenance and tenant problems, and eventually moved out, looking for greener pastures. I was given six file folders full of letters that he wrote and received over the years which were invaluable in composing this article.
Terminating Assistance for Alcohol Abuse by Household Members
Under the family obligations listed at 24 CFR 982.551, the members of the household must not abuse alcohol in a way that threatens the health safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of other residents and persons residing in the immediate vicinity of the premises.
(Adopted by the NHA board of directors on April 8, 2002)
I first met Charlie Bixby when he was on the street. It was May, 1990, and a group of homeless people were living in a colony of tents in Pulaski Park. There was no shelter for singles in Northampton, so the homeless camped out there for 10 days, ignoring threats from the mayor to remove them. A few of us city councilors were mediating between the tent people and city government, going back and forth, braving torrential downpours, bringing messages and ultimatums from City Hall to the leaky overcrowded tent where the No-Homes war council met. Bixby was the leader of the council, and was an effective and engaging figure when it came time to talk to the media. For a couple unforgettable nights we threw open the City Council chambers as temporary housing, then after some tense negotiations between Mayor David Musante and the state of Massachusetts, Bixby and his group was given a key to 91 Grove St. on the State Hospital grounds. The ragged group of revolutionaries folded their tents and marched up to Grove Street, where for a number of months they ran their own shelter with the help of advocates. In August Musante shut down the No-Homes Inn and threw some of the homeless and their advocates in jail. Later, the building would be reopened and became a singles shelter. Maybe Bixbys name ought to be on the building as one of its founding fathers.
When he wasnt on the political warpath on behalf of the homeless and leading events for his fellow American Indians, Bixby drank and fought other more obscure battles, like trying to hotwire a Jeep out on Turkey Hill Road after he and a friend were caught burglarizing a house. Before he came to Forsander in1993, he had acquired a substantial police record. He grew up on Riverbank Road, the child of an alcoholic mother and a hard-working but absent father. He was Cree Indian on his mothers side. He had a reputation as a hard-drinking hell-raiser. He wore his hair in a pigtail, was slim, dark-skinned and good-looking, a young warrior fighting for acceptance and power in this white-mans world.
Down through the years with Charles Bixby:
9/19/1988 - Pleads innocent to charges he fired eight shots on Maple Street, gun confiscated
11/17/1988 - Submits to sufficient facts to warrant guilty plea on discharging a weapon and breach of peace while armed.
8/30/1989 - Following a daytime burglary on Turkey Hill Road, he was charged with breaking and entering in the daytime, placing a person in fear, attempting to commit larceny of a motor vehicle, and reckless and wonton destruction of property
6/21/1990 -Found guilty of breaking and entering, suspended sentence.
On July 14, 1993, he was given a key to J23 at Forsander. Jon Hite, administrator of the Northampton Housing Authority, signed the lease for the authority. Why Hite admitted Bixby, only he can tell us. Bixbys brother told me that he was referred by his doctor, Kenneth Anolik, who wrote some kind of letter that he was disabled and eligible for SSI benefits. But this whole area is foggy; Only Hite can tell us what went on. So now the advocate (his death certificate lists his occupation as advocate) was off the streets of Northampton. He won his battle against homelessness, but ultimately lost his life. For him, I think, Forsander represented what life on the reservation was like for his ancestors total isolation.. He had a home at a ridiculously low rent ($116 a month), a SSI check, and was surrounded by people who didnt work for a living. Of course, they were old, and he was still young and active. He went back to drinking, quarrelling, and getting in trouble with the law. In l995 he went rock climbing out at the Chesterfield gorge while drunk, and it took a whole army of police and EMTs to get him out. Then he was walking around town with a sling on. There were fights. In one of them, he got hit in the head with a hammer. After that, Richard Foster recalled, Bixby was never the same. His apartment was a horror, jammed with smelly debris. He unwittingly brought the law to Forsander; his door was kicked down once by police. Over the years he acquired a thick file at the Housing Authority office. About two years before Bixbys death in March of this year, Hite tried to evict him. He asked for his eviction based on the horrific state his apartment was in when the Board of Health inspected. Bixbys tenancy was imposing a serious threat to the health and safety of other residents, said the Housing Authoritys lawyer. The judge says ok, Ill give you an order for possession, but cancel it if he straightens out. Bixby doesnt straighten off, blows off his appointments with an agency that helps people preserve his tenancy.
He is hospitalized, seriously ill of intestinal disease flowing from his alcoholism. The Housing Authority goes back to court on April 28, 2003. Meanwhile, Bixby has managed to straighten himself out, is clean and sober and contrite. A new judge stays the eviction. I asked the Authoritys lawyer, John OConnor, what happened next. He shrugged. Thats the last I heard of Charlie. If hes paying his rent and I dont get any calls from the authority on him, then Im not going back to court. The reality of the situation was that he had relapsed; Charlie was dying. On March 15, NHA maintenance director David Amberson knocked on his door as part of a routine yearly inspection he makes of all apartments. There was a note posted:
NHA DONT DO MY DOOR OR ANYTHING ELSE FOR AT LEAST A WEEK . IM HURT REAL BAD AND DONT NEED ANYONE AROUND ME OR MY APARTMENT. I MEAN IT! CHARLEY.
Neighbors hadnt seen him in about a week. Inside Bixby was lying dead on his back on a pile of garbage. According to the police, the apartment was a pit. There were vodka and brandy bottles, there were bottles of Mylanta and Pepto-Bismol, there were 10 bottles of meds, many of them powerful tranquilizers and stimulants, Blood was tracked everywhere from gastro-intestinal bleeding. Too much alcohol does different things to different people, in Bixbys case it attacked his digestive tract until he was in continual pain and bleeding. He drank too much and his guts blew out said a cop to me, who didnt have much use for the guy. Richard Foster remembers Bixby with some affection, and liked to hang out with him. He viewed him as more an innocent victim of the dark side of life than anything else. Once he and Bixby decided to spruce up the front of the project. They got red paint from the authority and painted and repaired the split-rail fence out front.
The other guy that lived upstairs in Fosters building was a different matter. He wasnt sociable, like Bixby. Edward Mello was a heavy-set guy in his late 60s with a pickup truck. He kept to himself and didnt talk much. He first moved into the complex in l992 or l993. He was a man of mystery. There were rumors that he was doing landscaping work off the books. There was a lot of traffic in and out of his apartment, however. Someone who had been in Walpole said he had met Mello there, and he was doing time for an old murder.
That kind of freaked Foster out. Criminals arent supposed to be able to live in public housing. Supposedly anyone who applies has to undergo a criminal background screening. At first Foster couldnt figure out what was going on. There was a lot of coming and going at the Mello apartment on Friday and Saturday nights. Finally Foster went to Bixby and asked him what was going on. Bixby told him Mello was dealing drugs. Friday night was a big night, because it was payday for people. The young people would come and knock on his door. Mello was also a drinker. Hed come out of his apartment, stagger and fall down. Bixby and Foster would pick him up, steer him to the bottom of the stairs, and give him a start.
There was no complaining about him to the Housing Authority. Foster lived in the building with his wife and he didnt want to start anything hat would endanger her or other tenants. Everyone said, dont cross him, said Foster, He had mean eyes, he had been in prison, he had a reputation that he knew people who would make you disappear. Foster heard some horrific story that either Mello or a friend of his had killed a guy in jail. So Foster quietly sent away for his criminal record to the Criminal History Systems Board. Mello really was a murderer and had a history of violence toward women.
Edward Mello first came to the attention of Gazette readers and the editor of downstreet.net
in May of 1992, when he and Carol Rainville, who lived at 48 Riverside Drive, founded People United for a Better America. Its offices were at the old Gazette building on Armory Street; it had two members at that point, Rainville and Mello. The organization was founded with $10,000 of their money. At the time Mary Ford was conducting a hard-fought campaign for an override; the first and perhaps last organized event that Mello and Rainville organized was a rally in support of the override at the Unitarian church. Mary Ford, her department heads, and about 40 people turned out for the rally. Mello had big plans, including a statewide lobby to repeal Proposition 2 1/2.
Two years later, Mello would violate a protective order, and the district court would issue an order that he stay away from Carol Rainville. Born and brought up in Fall River, Mellos first brush with the law was for stealing a car in l946, when he was 20 years old. Then six years later, he was indicted, tried and found guilty of killing his first wife. He was sentenced to life in jail, but got out in about 20 years. He then moved to the Springfield area. In the next four years he was arraigned three times for motor vehicle violations, including operating to endanger and leaving the scene of a crash. Some time in the 1980s he founded Pioneer Service Corporation, a human service organization dealing with pre-trial diversion programs for juvenile offenders.
I called up the head of the district court probation department and asked if he knew Ed Mello.
Oh yeah he said, I know Ed Mello all right.
So clear up a mystery for me, I said. How does a murderer get to run a program for juvenile offenders?
He was a bullshitter, Bill Burke said. That guy could talk a starving dog off a meat wagon. He could write proposals and get federal money. Those were the days when anything went. He also was savvy enough to hire decent people to do the counseling.
But then Pioneer Service collapsed and Mello drifted around, coming to Northampton. He ran Eds Place, a diner in Smiths Ferry near the Holyoke line, and did landscaping work. He was ordered into alcoholism treatment at the VA by Judge Alvertus Morse in l985. A year later Judge Morse, unhappy that Mello wasnt paying anything on his child support obligations, ordered him to submit to the court a financial statement of what happened to the money he got from the sale of his diner. Finally in l989 he was ordered to work off his arrears at the Honor Court. In 1999 a judge looked at all the alcohol-related trouble, revoked his probation and put him back in Walpole for 18 months.
Termination of assistance for drug-related Criminal Activity or Violent Criminal Activity, or for alcohol abuse.
The lease must provide that the owner may terminate tenancy if a tenant is Violating a condition of probation or parole imposed under Federal or State law. (adopted by the NHA Board of Directors on April 8,2002)
It would seem at this point as if the authority had a golden opportunity to cancel Mellos lease. He was vacating his apartment; it could and should have been freed up for someone else. Foster had notified the authoritys tenant coordinator that Mello was probably working off the books. He had a history of violence toward women, he had a drinking problem that was affecting his neighbors, he was going back to jail, and he was not to be around for almost two years.
They held his apartment for him for almost two years, said Foster. The Housing Authority knew what was going on. His daughter paid his rent every month, and the authority held it for him, and the young people that worked with him on his landscaping jobs stayed there off and on while he was in prison. Mello was released from state custody on June of 2001, and came back to Forsander. By the fall of 2002, Richard Foster was getting tired of life at Forsander. He was writing letters to the paper, writing letters to the Housing Authority, going to authority meetings and trying to get the grounds looked after. He had Mello back upstairs. One night at a tenants meeting, he was going to raise with the association all the questions he had about Mello. That was the only night that Edward Mello ever showed up for a tenants meeting. He sat there glaring at people, not saying a word. The matter was never raised. In November Richard Foster and his wife left Forsander and moved to Chicopee to be closer to his relatives and get a little peace and quiet. On June 23 of this year, Edward Mello died from natural causes linked to heart disease.
Interviewed about the troubled history of some Forsander tenants, Hite was charming, seemingly undefensive and honest. We talked outside
his offices so he could have a smoke. He made a point of showing how
accessible he was to his people, many of whom were passing by in review.
Why did he let Charlie Bixby in? "Without violating confidentiality, what I
can say is that was successfully participating in a rehabilitation program.
I realized at the time he was a high risk candidate, and I take the
responsibility for that mistake."
Regarding Ed Mello, Hites argument was that when they ran his record check back he came back clean. No record. Evidently for a long time, Hite was in contact with Mello's probation officer, who told him "if Ed started screwing up, I should call him. It was great to have that hold over a tenant, the knowledge that if he is trouble, I can call someone who can deal with him."
Hite realized at some point that Mello had been rejailed. He was
drinking, and back in Walpole. There was an inspection of his apartment and it was clear that while that someone was paying the rent, Mello was not there. At that stage, Hite admitted, "I could have moved to evict him. I chose not to."
It was clear that the director of our housing authority likes, at some level, to live dangerously. He smokes, he buys scratch tickets, he takes gambles with people, he prides himself in power relationships with probation officers and even hardened criminals. He rules over the powerless, an extended household of over 500 low-income people, many of them disabled. Hite is not really a prisoner of unwise laws: he has enormous discretionary authority and uses it. He is not merely candid, he is blase, even nonchalant about his failures. It appears that social workers, lawyers, probation officers and politicians have more punch and access than Hites tenant organizations. In the end, prudence and caution was not the order of the day in tenant selection.
At Forsander and elderly complexes for the public across America the 80s 90s brought big changes at the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and at state agencies as well. The landmark 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and other legislation opened up public housing not just the conventionally disabled, but people disabled by drugs and alcohol. It attempted to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability. Perhaps it was a little too comprehensive. Each succeeding boom cycle in our real estate market has eroded the islands where the poor live. This Old House whetted our appetite for Victorian properties. Rooming houses became single family homes, SRO hotels became condominiums and homelessness became a public phenomenon, and waiting lists at public housing lengthened.
Becoming eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the first step toward qualifying for Housing Authority assistance. The assistance of a doctor is key to acceptance of an application; if denied you probably could use a disability lawyer. Like everything else around here, there are disability doctors and disability lawyers and a whole host of doubtful service providers, and scores of guides to winning approval for your application. A published index (www.disabilityfacts.com
) rates different states for their acceptance/rejection rates if you want to shop around.
Those among us who write and amend and pass laws passed a real corker with the ADA and its ocean of fine print that made alcohol and drug problems a disability almost like any other, and mandated that housing authorities provide apartments to addicts and alcoholics. ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The laws palatability was helped with language that said that addicts had to graduate from a drug rehabilitation program and remain clean. It was another triumph of the unfunded mandate. There was no money in the act for drug or alcohol testing or for systematic followup. It was the Do it, dont bother me with details mentality. Jon Hite groused that he would see peoples lawyers and advocates in the beginning when programs wanted to get their people in the door and at the end when they were fighting their clients eviction when they had gotten into severe trouble. Never in between. Never any kind of systematic support. Anyone that has been involved in AA/NA or other substance abuse programs knows that graduation from a program doesnt mean much. Relapse is routine, and residences that are set up specifically for people with drug or alcohol problems have few tenancy rights and the testing is systematic and relentless. Use today, youre out tomorrow.
Update: Elaine Fortier, who was featured in the first article in this series, has moved out of Forsander after more incidents with her upstairs neighbor. When her new landlord contacted the Northampton Housing Authority for a reference, they said that she was a good tenant, but that she frequently wrote letters of complaint about her neighbors to the authority.