Home invasion

A flood of calls to City Hall prompts a special meeting on security and conditions in San Francisco's public housing tracts
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

Don Barsuglia worried security was deteriorating at the SoMa public housing complex where he's lived for about eight years after he watched a body drop past his ninth-floor balcony window late one evening.

A would-be thief had climbed over the 10th-floor balcony during an escape attempt after stealing a few thousand dollars from another resident in Clementina Towers, located close to Sixth Street between Howard and Folsom. The man misjudged his footing and dropped to his death below before police could arrive.

"He probably thought my balcony was open," Barsuglia told the Guardian. "However, I have a bird net on my balcony. So when he went to go down, he hit my net, and good-bye, Mr. Spider-Man. Splat. That's it, man."

That was enough for Barsuglia, who joined dozens of angry public housing residents last week at City Hall for a special hearing on safety and living conditions, which was organized by Sup. Chris Daly, whose District 6 includes Clementina's neighborhood.

The 74-year-old Barsuglia recounts with verve the building's recent run-ins with dope dealers, prostitutes, and knife-wielding teenage stickup artists. Several years ago his building and a neighboring tower had two 24-hour security guards, he said, but they're now down to one. And just a few weeks ago, when daytime watches were trimmed back to save money, Barsuglia and other residents say they noticed a marked difference.

"It's neglect by management and administration," he said of the San Francisco Housing Authority. "They pay no attention to us ... totally ignored. They don't even return calls."

Daly's office has been inundated with grievances from people frightened by an uptick in crime at public housing, including the Ping Yuen complex on Pacific Avenue in Chinatown and Sala Burton on Turk Street in the Tenderloin.

Clementina, built in the early '70s, houses low-income elderly and disabled residents in 275 studios and one-bedroom apartments. The building is supervised by the trouble-plagued Housing Authority, which faced a litany of questions at the meeting about a diminished security presence at several of its 52 developments across the city.

In November 2006 housing officials sent an abrupt memo to residents notifying them that the authority would have to "explore other methods" for policing its senior and disabled housing sites due to cash shortages.

Progressives on the Board of Supervisors have set their sights on the authority's seven-member commission, composed of mayoral appointees, demanding at the hearing that Mayor Gavin Newsom consider a shake-up of its membership. No one from the Housing Authority Commission attended the meeting.

"Where are they?" Sup. Tom Ammiano asked after hearing a steady stream of emotional public comments. "I find it criminal, and I challenge the mayor to look at his appointments. Are they the right people for the commission?"

A 51-year-old heart patient who's lived at Clementina for nine years told the Guardian she positions her motorized wheelchair against the door each night for additional safety. The headboard of her bed seals off one of the windows. Full-time security returned to the building recently, but the woman, who asked not to be named, fearing an assault, said that when the single guard checks each of the 26 floors, nonresidents manage to sneak in. She said that just last week a duo armed with a hammer and a knife robbed an older man living in the building.

"It used to be nice and quiet," she said. "Our front doors we could leave open with just the chain on.... [Now] I'm not sleeping in my bedroom.

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