By Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
If it were not for that missing link in Dorothy Jenkins's family story, she might not have ended up in this funky blue apartment building in the Bronx for grandparents like her.
But the drug scourge burned bright into the mid-1990s and took her daughter Karen with it. Karen died at age 35 in 1993 of a drug-induced aneurysm. Jenkins was left to raise three grandchildren, the youngest of whom was 2-year-old Brittany.
The grandmother, who crosses her legs at the ankle in a dignified manner befitting her Southern upbringing, has carried out the task on a tight budget and with a firmness that earned her a nickname: "The Marshal."
"Whatever we went through, we went through together," said Jenkins, 76, perched on her sofa surrounded by photos of her grandchildren, one of whom became a doctor, another a businessman. "You see these kids, they are very, very close because they were raised by the Marshal."
Now the Marshal has found a little help, moving with 13-year-old Brittany into the new 50-unit GrandParent Family Apartments, the nation's first public housing devoted exclusively to the needs of those raising grandchildren. The 66,470-square-foot residence, a project of Presbyterian Senior Services and West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, offers a menu of services for seniors whose annual incomes fall below $17,000. There's round-the-clock security and programs including tutoring for the kids, visiting nurses for the seniors and rec rooms for both.
"We work with both components of the family -- most programs work with one or the other," said Michele Chapple, the lead social worker who coaches seniors on parenting skills. "It's a generation gap; that's the biggest gap there is."
The Bronx is the fourth-poorest county in the nation, according to the Census Bureau, and is home to many generation-gap families, after AIDS, drugs and incarceration claimed thousands of parents.
Nationwide, the 2000 census counted 2.3 million people who are primary caregivers for grandchildren. In New York, 44,000 elderly care for children, while in Washington 8,100 households qualify as generation-gap households.
"Grandparents came to the senior center saying they suddenly have four grandchildren but can't live" in the center's seniors-only building, recalled David Taylor, executive director of Presbyterian Senior Services.
With nowhere to send them, the Presbyterian group eyed the vacant lot next door. With the help of the Bronx borough president's office, the group secured city-owned land, renting it for 99 years at $1 a year. It pulled together $12 million from government grants, private loans and direct investment for construction. Then Taylor mixed and matched government and corporate funding and money from the Presbyterian Church to cover the $300,000 annual cost for social services.
Bridging the generation gap is a tricky business. Taylor said few agencies address both generations -- the elderly and the children they are raising. "When we go on a trip with seniors, I was getting transportation by the city," he said, referring to vans provided by the Department of Aging. "But I can't bring the child."
In 2003, President Bush signed the Legacy (Living Equitably: Grandparents Aiding Children and Youth) bill, which called for the creation of housing for multi-generational families. That program received its first congressional appropriation this year, in the amount of $4 million. (The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would provide a monthly stipend to elders raising grandchildren if they meet income and other requirements).
The Jenkins family settled into a cozy two-bedroom apartment. For the first time, Brittany has her own room. A photo of her incarcerated father hangs above the light switch; another photo, of her deceased mother, watches over her from above the door. And Jenkins has found others of her generation, who offer camaraderie and a chance to swap stories about the struggles and rewards of raising a generation removed.
In many ways, the grandparents' residence might be seen as a quiet epilogue to the decades of urban decline that began in the 1950s when bank redlining and urban renewal programs displaced many communities. Over the next two decades, the Bronx was rocked by housing abandonment, crime and riots.
"People were burning up the neighborhood," Jenkins said, recalling images of charred city blocks. "In the noonday you would see the Bronx go up."
Then came crack and AIDS and a rising homicide rate.
"What we were left with was broken families, especially in the South Bronx," said Adolfo Carrion Jr., the Bronx borough president. "The lion's share of the families are not broken anymore, but there are still many people who show the effects of that era."
A subway train rumbles by as evening sets in, and Brittany, tall and sturdy for her 13 years, returns home after rehearsing with the Girls Choir of Harlem. Outside the building, she eyeballs the strangers on her new block with skepticism. She hates her new home. Even though the elevator was always broken and the halls smelled of urine at her old buildings, she resisted the move.
"I've been over there my whole life; it's a whole lot different over here," she said. "The only reason I did it was because of my grandmother."
Upstairs, Jenkins shares her granddaughter's feelings of loneliness that come with moving away from a place she called home for three decades. She considered Brittany and her dreams of becoming a pediatrician. Many temptations lie outside the door, on the street, ready to lure away a young girl. But then again, Jenkins said, the door is locked, there is someone to help see them through, and she relaxes a bit.
"Right now," she said, "I don't have a worry in the world."