Shelter Skelter (Part I)

In 1984, four women living in city housing projects said they wanted to get out. Only one made it.

Time passes differently in a housing project. It follows different rules, a snake that swallows slowly, bite by bite, leaving less and less chance of escape.

Not that Florina Johnson wants to escape. Johnson, 68, a public housing resident for more than 30 years, loves it here at Hunters Point in her tidy two-bedroom, a calm center in a wild universe. The noontime sun glints off the barbed wire on nearby Griffith Street. The light refracts from the sweep of the bay to the graffiti-stained, mustard-toned walls of the project; it gleams on broken glass and slides into windows, finding Johnson in her kitchen, dipping drumsticks into flour, oil bubbling on the stove, the smell of fried chicken thickening the air.

Some 700 people live on either side of Johnson in the two-story scattered apartment buildings that dot the hillside and offer views of Candlestick Park. Temporary, transitional housing is how these and other projects were described back in the '50s and '60s, days when the San Francisco Housing Authority was not synonymous with neglect and ineptitude -- days when rents in the private sector were still affordable, and public housing was seen as a way station for people en route to full employment, education, equal opportunity -- all the things the Great Society would supposedly provide.

Many people did manage to move on. But Johnson, like thousands of others, never was able to escape the projects, once she entered them in 1949, the year the first of her five children was born.

She lives in what some people would call a box -- but it is hers. She enjoys being surrounded by her children and grandchildren and by friends and neighbors who call her Big Mama, an inexplicable moniker, considering her tiny frame, her narrow shoulders, her hip bones sharp protrusions from the cotton shorts she favors.

Time on this hill has a way of telling people how much hasn't changed. So when I first call Johnson and remind her that I met her 11 years ago, back in 1984, back when she was head of the Hunters Point Tenants' Association -- when I tell her that I've called to see how she's doing now, and to ask her what has happened -- she can't really think of how to sum up the decade.

"I thought maybe you would have moved out -- you weren't too pleased with things the last time we spoke," I say to her. I myself had moved away and had not been back in the area until this year. I'd tried to track down several other people I'd met in the projects in the '80s, but some seemed to have disappeared. "I'm glad I was able to find you," I tell Johnson.

Johnson remembers me immediately, even though it's been so long and we met only briefly, at a tenants' meeting in a tiny room on Oakdale Street near her apartment. Back then, Johnson was 57 and passing around a petition to a group of younger women, all of whom wanted a key to the project's laundry room, which was locked up on weekends, when they wanted to do their wash.

Now, Johnson invites me back to the project to talk with her and the new president of the tenants' association, Yvonne Gage, 31, who took over in 1993, at the end of Johnson's nine-year reign. The three of us sit in Johnson's squat but comfortable living room, photos of her children on the walls, a TV flashing a call and response to a smaller TV chirping in the kitchen. Johnson sips a beer and tells me her husband, a former shipyard worker, is feeling ill and lying in the bedroom upstairs.

Maybe I'll be able to meet him some other time, I say. The women nod and gaze at me expectantly.

The project looks worse, I tell them, and it is true: Though according to housing officials more than 6,000 people on a waiting list hope to be able to move into this project or one of the 47 others in the city, it's clear that desperation, not desirability, feeds the demand. At Hunters Point, the only available place for children to play is a basketball court ruled by clumps of teens, or a baseball diamond mined with gopher holes, the benches alongside it stripped of wood. Sewage smells pervade the apartments. Streetlights need replacing; trash is piled high. According to the Housing Authority, violent crime in this area is as much as five times higher than in San Francisco as a whole.

Among 1,600 leaseholders in Hunters Point and the nearby Hunters View project, more than 840 violent crimes were reported between April 1994 and April 1995, housing statistics show -- one rape, murder, assault, or other brutality for every two people. And that's the good news. In other projects around the city -- in Hayes Valley, for example -- 1,570 violent crimes were reported among just 584 people in the same time period: almost three violent crimes for every person. And that's not even counting drug offenses.

In fact, the only thing truly manageable about public housing is the cost: Tenants pay either a third of their monthly income in rent, or a set price of no more than $700 a month for the largest, four-bedroom units (which in the private sector demand $1,700 a month and more).

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