No one would argue that drug dealers should be allowed to ply their trade in public housing. But in order to rid housing projects of dealers, the federal government has put forward a troublesome eviction plan.
Henry McLaughlin, executive director of Central Virginia Legal Services in Richmond, successfully argued before a federal judge recently that the government was trying to rid public housing projects of the drug scourge at the expense of the constitutional rights of poor people. He's right.
McLaughlin's efforts sharply limited a federal program to seize the leases of public housing tenants accused of selling drugs, but they did not stop it. U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams ruled that the government must give notice and a chance for a hearing before anyone is evicted. Nevertheless, entire families still face the possibility of eviction and homelessness because one member of their household may be suspected (not even convicted) of dealing in drugs.
Federal housing officials and prosecutors have begun moving to seize leases not only in Richmond but also in Washington and other major cities.
"Some sort of surgery is needed," says Sister Diane Roche, a nun who manages the Sursum Corda housing project in Northwest Washington. "People need to take the consequences of their actions, but it is dangerous to try to punish people forever. There needs to be a mechanism in the plan that protects the children that is administered in conjunction with intervention and rehabilitation."
Sister Roche acknowledges that if the government begins seizing the leases of everyone in public housing who has been affected by the drug business -- a father, a brother, son, mother, sister, daughter -- there won't be anyone left. The Census Bureau estimates there are more than 3 million households in public housing nationwide.
This program goes well beyond the bounds of what the government should be allowed to do. Perhaps the prosecutors and law enforcement officials have become so frustrated by the enormity of the drug war that they seek to do something, anything, to stop it. But to threaten entire families with homelessness not only discriminates against the poor, it also threatens everyone's basic right to due process. If the government believes someone is selling drugs, then that person can be arrested and prosecuted under existing law. If the government believes someone is using drugs, then that person can be arrested and prosecuted. And this program will do nothing to stop those who deal drugs on public housing grounds but don't live there themselves.
The Virginia legal aid lawyers' efforts to protect the basic constitutional rights of poor people deserve praise and gratitude. Instead, they've received a rebuke from -- of all places -- their parent group, the Legal Services Corp., which (hoping for reauthorization from Congress) is urging legislators to pass a law barring legal aid groups from receiving federal funds if they represent tenants fighting eviction for suspected trafficking. The Virginia group receives slightly more than $560,000 from the government, small change when it comes to paying lawyers and running a law office.
In a prepared statement, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp talked tough in describing the new local skirmishes in the federal government's drug war. "This program is aimed at the drug thugs, who for too long have threatened and victimized the majority of law-abiding public housing residents and their children," he said. "The only thing public-housing drug dealers deserve is jail."
As for innocent family members who may be affected, Frank Keating, general counsel for HUD, acknowledged that the program could send evicted children into foster care, which in Richmond and Washington and elsewhere is so overburdened that it is unable to meet the needs of the children. "If the mother and father are so contemptuous of the welfare of those children as to necessitate it, it is regrettable but certainly their fault," Keating said.
Whose fault? Is it the children's fault for living in a household where one member is suspected of a drug offense? Is it a mother's or father's fault because a spouse or child may be associating with people in the drug trade, or because a family member may be abusing drugs? Is it the children's fault that they were born into poverty?
It will be our fault if we don't speak out against this program. -- Carol Wolf is a freelance writer living in Richmond.