THE DOORS WERE CLOSED at Sunset Manor as Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) representatives met privately with residents of the Ballard senior housing complex where a mentally ill 33-year-old resident was arrested last week on murder charges.
The SHA's official explanation—that the closed meeting was a "grief counseling session" for its gray-haired tenants—caught little traction with Sunset resident and senior housing advocate Jim Joelson, who called the meeting "psychobabble, applesauce bullshit." He suggested that the housing agency was avoiding a more urgent problem: the increasing number of mentally disabled residents that are moving into SHA-run senior housing.
Housing authority spokesperson Virginia Felton explained to angry residents that the 1981 Senior Housing bond issue specified that at least 10 percent of the units created should go to disabled nonelderly residents. Back then, "disabled" meant physically handicapped; the umbrella of disability has since broadened under Washington law, however, to include recovering alcoholics, schizophrenics, drug addicts, and manic depressives. "There are more and more of these young mental cases in these buildings," said Bob Carter, a 10-year resident at SHA-run Pleasant Valley Plaza in Magnolia. "I've been warning them for two and a half years that this was going to happen," Joelson added.
But given the preponderance of disabled residents in the city's senior housing—about 16 percent at the SHA's last count—the bigger story may be how infrequently such crimes occur. Sunset Manor residents seemed divided on this point; one vocal contingent, made up of Joelson, Carter, and other housing authority critics, said the agency should do a better job of checking the backgrounds of disabled applicants.
On the other side, less vocal but no less adamant, were residents like Cynthia Wakefield, an 11-year Sunset tenant who said she'd never had any problems with any of the younger residents until the murder earlier this month. "I'm comfortable with younger people living here, but I do think there has to be more care taken with [residents with] that kind of background," she said.
What none of this answers, of course, is how murder suspect Jeffrey Schuler— a man with a reported history of domestic violence and schizophrenia—got into Sunset Manor in the first place. Housing authority officials say that since Schuler, charged with killing his 37-year-old fianc饠in his apartment, had no felony convictions on his record—only misdemeanors, one involving an attempted assault on his father—they saw no reason to bar him from the complex.
That comes as little comfort to seniors. For the moment, though, SHA says all it can do is review its admission policies to ensure that the disabled people it does admit (a number one SHA representative says the agency would like to see reduced) won't pose a danger to its most vulnerable residents.
Erica C. Barnett