Among the agency heads who came before a City Council committee last night following a block party that exploded into the worst mass shooting in Baltimore’s recent history, Janet Abrahams stood out.
Baltimore Police leaders struck a tone of contrition, taking responsibility for their failure to learn about Brooklyn Day in advance and respond despite clear signs of trouble.
But Abrahams, who heads the federally-funded public housing agency in control of Brooklyn Homes where the July 2 shootout occurred, appeared defiant and largely blamed residents.
“This has been a challenging time for all of us. Lives were lost and people were injured because individuals chose to break the rules and break the law,” she began, stressing that “in the prior years, residents organized this Brooklyn Homes event.”
“Since Covid, the event has not been organized by the residents in the same manner and properly communicated to HABC, as they had in the past,” said Abrahams, whose title is president and CEO of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC).
How did HABC, which has full-time staff at each of its developments, not know about a party that has been taking place on HABC grounds for the past 27 years?
The Brooklyn Party “never happened on the same day every year,” Abrahams explained. “Sometimes it’s in June, sometimes it is in July, and sometimes this is August.”
“We continue to wait and look for intel on the property,” she continued. “If we see flyers, if we hear anything, we – they – report it in to us and we, of course, report it to police.”
“You completely miss the mark”
Her testimony went unchallenged by members of the Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, but members of the public denounced it bitterly.
“I was very disappointed by your testimony, madame CEO,” said Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
“I did not hear any mea culpa, I did not hear any discussion of the many, many things that the housing authority could have done to be in touch with this community,” Little said.
“700-plus individuals gathered on your property for several hours and you had no idea? That is unbelievable” – NAACP Vice President NaShona Kess.
NAACP Vice President NaShona Kess also addressed her remarks directly to Abrahams.
“You completely missed the mark. This was your time to share how you engage with your residents, how you will create relationships in the communities that you serve. You failed to do that today,” Kess said.
“700-plus individuals gathered on your property for several hours and you had no idea that they were on your property? That is unbelievable.”
Earlier Murder on Gretna Court
The next speaker up was Donna Bruce, a former Brooklyn Homes resident who said that in January, her son, Ivean Earle Williams Jr., “was murdered in the 800 block of Gretna Court,” the epicenter of the Brooklyn Day mass shooting.
“My son is gone. He was 25 years old,” Bruce said, struggling to maintain her composure.
“If the Baltimore Police and the Housing Authority would have had a better response to his murder, there would have been police in that community,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here today.”
“He was visiting a friend. He was on this way to school. He wasn’t doing anything,” Bruce continued. “The Housing Authority don’t care. They don’t even know it happened.”
Baltimore’s Largest Landlord
The hearing ran over four hours, the first public opportunity for lawmakers to probe the dimensions of the tragedy and look at the roles played by multiple government agencies and individuals.
Meanwhile, speakers last night sought to clarify some of the lines of governmental jurisdiction and responsibility for the event.
The party was not required to get a city “special events” permit from either the police or the Department of Transportation, officials said.
Instead, it occurred in the domain of the Housing Authority, which provides housing for low-income tenants in multiple developments across Baltimore and describes itself as “Baltimore’s largest landlord.”
“Continuity went away”
Abrahams appeared to be aware that she has been under scrutiny for the tragedy at Brooklyn Homes, where she said 1,100 people live in 481 units.
But she pointed to various factors as more responsible for the loss of life at the normally peaceful outdoor block party.
“The resident who typically organized this passed . . . so the continuity went away with that,” she said.
“A security manager that worked with us, he has since then left us in May,” she also said. Because he was a former police officer “we were able to get a lot of information and share a lot of information with the police department.”
“We have done everything that we possibly can” – HABC President Janet Abrahams.
But Abrahams was insistent that her agency was not to blame.
“The Housing Authority has heard so many things about we should have known, why didn’t we know, why didn’t we do what we were supposed to do?” she said.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I just want to be clear, we have done everything that we possibly can over the years to ensure that any events that happen on our property have the proper protocols in place,” Abrahams continued.
“However, we will always have families that do not follow our policies and procedures,” she said. “When we hear about those things . . . the consequence is we terminate their lease.”
Power to Evict
The power to evict is significant in a city with a severe lack of affordable housing and a long waiting list for those seeking a housing voucher. (The waitlist for public housing in Baltimore is closed to new applicants.)
Abrahams made the threat clear, saying, “If the Housing Authority terminates your lease, you cannot be housed in any programs across the country.”
“If the Housing Authority terminates your lease, you cannot be housed in any programs across the country” – Janet Abrahams.
Plans for the future were also referenced by Abrahams, who was appointed in 2017 by Mayor Catherine Pugh when city housing was split into two agencies, the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the federally funded HABC.
Abrahams said she hopes to communicate better “what will not be tolerated on HABC property,” and said she plans to expand a contracted security force to include Brooklyn Homes.
“Thank you for your attention,” she told the Council, concluding her remarks.
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