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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 14, 2024


March 4, 2002 – There's a struggle in the public housing communities of the Virgin Islands over family values. At Oswald Harris Court, it's a struggle being waged by an unlikely army — one building manager, a grandfather with three fidgety grandchildren, a dozen working moms and dads with some more kids in tow, and a handful of feisty old ladies.
These are the people who straggle in on a workday evening to the regular meeting at the Ruth Dazle Community Center. According to community services specialist Joycelyn Turnbull, meetings are held once a month; after the hiatus for the Christmas holidays, they have begun again.
To a visiting reporter who has sat in near-empty courtrooms and at public hearings largely minus the public, the 25 people filling the seats at the center seem like a lot, but to Gloria Haynes, the Resident Council president, they're a drop in the bucket. There are 300 families living at Harris Court, she says, and getting them to turn out to the monthly meetings is about as easy as getting parents to show up for the PTA meetings at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, where she works as a librarian.
But Haynes says it's important for the people living in public housing to know how the system works for and against them, so she and others "are trying to educate them," she says.
Organizers also are trying to rally the working-class families at Harris Court to mobilize against the elements that threaten their close-knit community. There's apathy, the inertia that leads some so stay behind their front doors on the couch and in front of the television screen. There's hostility among neighbors. One tenant told of her struggle to keep the yard clean, with the neighbors flinging bags of garbage from the windows upstairs.
Then there are the more menacing elements. Building manager Wenceslas Smith warns parents to keep a close eye on their children at the playground, "because we're an open community, we're not fenced in."
Even as the meeting gets under way, Smith says there are children peering through the door. Small children who don't live at Harris Court but wander in unsupervised after dark, bringing foul language and talk of guns and gangs. Older children, she says, may be the ones responsible for the lights being knocked out in one building. "It's unsafe," she says.
One senior at the meeting asks if Smith has heard of residents complaining to the housing police about children climbing onto the roof at other buildings.
Smith is one of two housing managers at Harris Court. Through a myriad of duties, she works to foster a quality lifestyle for her residents. Although her demeanor is measured and calm, sometimes she has to show her tougher side. There's a warning for those who store old appliances and auto parts in the hallways outside their apartments. They don't belong there, the manager says, and if those items are still in the hall when she makes her walk-through inspection, they won't be for long.
Likewise for those who throw trash and are otherwise sloppy. Anyone found with neatness violations is sent to a mandatory housekeeping training class. Failure to attend and correct the conditions can result in eviction.
And after the stick comes the carrot. Smith reminds the seniors that transportation will be arranged for them to attend the Housing Authority Senior Citizens Ball in May, and she adds, "You have enough notice: The color is shades of purple."
Parents with children in school are urged to send them to the community afterschool program to get help with their homework. But lately, children have been coming home saying they don't have any homework. That's because they want to go out and play, one mother says; when she goes through their knapsacks, the homework is "right there."
In addition to the afterschool program, the young people at Harris Court can use the on-site computer lab, register for a summer jobs program, and play in the Housing Authority's youth steel orchestra. Most of the programs are federally funded. "The whole idea is to keep the kids busy," Turnbull says.
Some programs are more popular than others, according to Smith. The seniors programs draw the greatest participation, along with the steelband. Soon, she says, older youth who have dropped out of school will have a chance to sign up for GED classes.
And for further reinforcement, the community service specialist brings speakers to the meetings to stimulate discussion. Residents are eager to join in on the latest one, which is centered on family life.
Some talk about the dynamics within their families. Others speak of the housing community as their extended family. Or at least they wish it were, they say, but the values they were raised on are hard to find and harder to share. Instead, they say, there is so much mistrust and uncertainty.
"In these days you have to be careful," one resident says.

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