Huddled on a makeshift bunk bed with several of her roommates, Lee Harbille joyously popped her fingers and sang folk songs in celebration of their victory yesterday against eviction from what one city fire inspector called "an incredible fire trap."
She rocked on "Yeah, I worry about that. I'm not naive," said Harbille, who lives with 30 other women in a three-bedroom apartment at 612 M St. NW. "But we are careful. We go around putting out each other's cigarettes. We're like walking smoke detectors. I know the place ain't much. But baby, it's cold outside."
City housing and fire code inspectors arrived at the M Street apartment Monday night with crowbars and flashlights, prepared to move the women out. The eviction crew was following up on an earlier inspection tour.
"We're not going to have another Lamont Street," said Sgt. Fred Brown, a fire inspector, referring to the deaths, last April of 10 women outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital when a fire swept their group home at 1715 Lamont St. NW.
Browns' supervisor, Lt. William Price, led the eviction crew up the rickety front porch steps of the old Victorian-style row house and inside a dark hallway to a room where the women had barricaded themselves with mattresses and a chest of drawers.
"This place is not fit for human habitation. It's an incredible fire trap," Price told the women as he surveyed the fire code violation papers in his hand. "No fire escape. Overcrowded. Excessive fuel combustion caused by makeshift furniture, rags and blankets. In case of a fire, you can't get out and we can't get in."
Suddenly, from the other side of the barricade, guitar music began.
"Leave us alone or give us a home," the women sang. "We will not be moved."
The eviction crew crowbarred its way inside and the women scattered in a flurry of musty dust.Some were clearly frightened and hid under crud canopies made of blankets and old rags. Others set up another mattress barricade in a back room and boldly stood their ground.
Moving through the apartment, the eviction crew held its breath. The toilet was leaking into the basement. ythe floors were a hodgepodge of blankets, rags, old clothes and mattresses. Mildewed album covers featuring Bach, Beethoven and Chopin sat warped in damp corners. There was a volume of Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and books by Isaac Asimov.
The city's Department of Human Resources had offered to relocate the women in the Parkside Hotel, a city-run shelter for the homeless at 1336 I St. NW. But the women refused, saying they feared that because the city regulations they would be required to leave that shelter after three days.
"You tell Marion Barry to find us a home," one woman screamed yesterday, her face swelling from the strain of indignation.
In a curious twist yesterday, the eviction order was rescinded at Mayor Barry's instruction. The situation at 612 M St. NW had been reassessed, said Audrey Rowe, acting administrator for the city's social rehabilitation administration.
"It is the Mayor's position that in these kinds of situations you don't remove people by force unless it's a matter of life and death," she said.
In a meeting late Monday night of fire inspectors, social workers from the Department of Human Resources, DHR Director Albert Russo, Rowe and Barry, a decision was made to "reassess what the [code] violations were and what the potential problems were," Rowe said. Another such meeting was held yesterday morning.
The weather had recently turned cold, the holiday was approaching and even neighbors along M Street who at times had favored eviction were asking why now.
"Why did they wait until it turned cold?" one neighbor asked as she shivered in her doorway. "Putting them out now seems especially mean."
Then, in a move that brought tears of joy to some of the women's eyes, city officials decided to chip in with the owners of the apartment, Intown Properties, and fix the place up over the next several weeks. A spokesman for Intown Properites declined to comment.
City Administrator Elijah Rogers said last night that all repairs to the apartment will be finished by Friday at city cost. Rogers said through a spokesman that the exact expense will not be known until later.
The during the repair work, Rogers said, any of the women at the apartment who are willing to be relocated temporarily will be helped to do so by the city and can return after Friday. Those who are unwilling can remain at the apartment during the repairs, Rogers said.
The M Street shelter has been in use since July, when it was rented to John Gee, 26, a part-time bookbinder and cofounder of the Women's Shelter Coordinating Committee Inc.
Sometimes as many as 40 homeless women pile into the three-bedroom apartment, bundled together for warmth and companionship. Some are battered wives, others are senile and abandoned. One resident is pregnant.
"They are forgotten people," said Gee, supervisor of a volunteer staff that maintains order and brings in food and clothes. "It's like they are not even citizens of this country.The city refuses to provide decent housing for them, then tries to throw them out because they can't find a place to live in. You can fix houses but you can't fix people who died from cold weather."
"We are a beautiful group," Lee Harbille said. "They sure underestimated us. Poeple talk about how crude our beds are. Well, John Gee got up at 5 a.m. one day and worked until 1 a.m. the next day building them. We formed teams and measured out the wood, sawed the wood and nailed the wood. They don't look like much but they were made with love. They sleep better than any sidewalk, too." m