Mary Peaks, 70, along with a man in his 90s and other elderly tenants, took turns for two weeks guarding their public housing building from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. when the District government ended security service because of budgetary constraints.

"We stopped sitting at the guard's desk when a housing official told us not to because it was dangerous," said Peaks, a resident of the Carroll Apartments in Southeast. "If it's dangerous, we want to know why they removed the guards. We are nervous. There are men {residents} here, but they are old and sickly and they can't help us if anything happens."

Peaks and other elderly public housing tenants who live in buildings scattered throughout the city are outraged that the District's Department of Public and Assisted Housing decided to reduce or eliminate security at their buildings in December. Some said they are now seeking to have security tightened and some security shifts have been restored.

"We are surrounded by nothing but drugs," said Lucille Savage, a resident of Claridge Towers in Northwest. "We have people walking the halls and knocking on the doors, and people in here are afraid. About six months ago, a woman down the hall from me was killed. And that's when we had guards."

Other tenants said some people have been reluctant to continue attending Wednesday night prayer meetings at local churches because they fear that someone might harm them. Before the security changes, residents said, the guards would open the doors for them. Now they must carry keys.

The public housing department, which operates 13 housing complexes for the elderly, initially removed the guards from five buildings and cut security from 24 hours to 16 hours at the other eight buildings.

Public Housing Director Alphonso Jackson said security was reduced in an effort to cut the department's security contract costs from $2.2 million to $1.8 million for the current fiscal year.

Following complaints, he said, the department restored some security shifts to the Carroll, Claridge and other buildings -- with the result that service is completely eliminated in four buildings where 628 tenants reside and the midnight shift security service is cut in the remaining senior citizen buildings.

Jackson said that last fall when Mayor Marion Barry asked that he reduce his budget by 10 percent, he had to decide whether to employ fewer guards or risk being unable to pay for heating services.

Jackson said it would "not be very responsible" of him to seek more money from the D.C. Council after being asked to make hard budget decisions. "Crime in our senior buildings is very low and has not increased since the guards were removed," said Jackson. "If I thought for one moment that there were any problems, I would be the first to increase security."

Also, Jackson disputed that a housing official told Carroll residents that their building was dangerous. He said the official instead advised residents that the housing department did not want them to take on the responsibilities of guards because if something happened the city could be liable.

Last week, 12 residents at the Carroll Apartments gathered in the lobby to talk about security problems, which Tenant Council president Jane Brayton said includes unauthorized persons in the building, "drug trafficking at our doorstep" and people loitering and sleeping around the building.

"I live on the fourth floor, and I hear people at the lobby door at midnight," said Mary G. Hill, who has lived in Carroll for 21 years. "This is bad for us old people. If someone broke in here, we couldn't help ourselves. At least I couldn't. I'm 91."