OAKLAND — From his cramped living room 13 floors above the midday growl of downtown traffic, 75-year-old Herman Walker wonders what he'll do if he's thrown out of his public housing apartment.
Walker is one of millions of tenants subject to a federal "one-strike" drug law that can result in eviction for the wrongdoing of visitors or relatives.
Officials say they found crack cocaine or crack pipes on three visits to Walker's apartment. His caretaker and a friend were arrested on drug charges.
Walker and three other elderly residents of Oakland public housing who face eviction aren't going quietly. They are suing the city and federal housing officials in federal court to stop the evictions, claiming such a move would violate their civil rights.
Walker, along with Barbara Hill and Pearlie Rucker, both 63, and Willie Lee, 71, contend that it's unfair to punish them for alleged drug activity they knew nothing about and couldn't have prevented.
"They're standing up for all of the seniors and all the disabled and all the elderly people that are just getting thrown out and . . . treated like garbage," said Donna Teshima, one of the group's attorneys.
The one-strike-and-you're-out policy under which tenants can be evicted if they or their guests are arrested--no conviction required--was announced by President Clinton in 1996.
Nationwide, 3,847 public housing tenants were ousted in the policy's first six months. That was an 84% increase over the number evicted for drugs and other crimes in the previous six months, according to a 1997 survey of about half the nation's housing authorities.
Oakland, which owns about 3,300 housing units, evicted 18 tenants under the policy last year.
Oakland Housing Authority officials deny they've picked the wrong targets in the fight against drugs.
"The authority believes . . . we have probable cause to move to evict the people, notwithstanding the fact of their age," said Randolph Hall, the assistant city attorney defending the housing authority.
Rucker supports efforts to sweep drugs out of public housing, but she doesn't think throwing her out along with them is going to help.
She received an eviction notice after police cited her mentally disabled daughter for possession of cocaine about three blocks from their home. Housing officials have dropped the eviction threat, but Rucker is pursuing her suit.
Rucker, who also takes care of two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, said she searches the apartment regularly and hasn't found drugs. But she said she can't control what may happen when her 42-year-old daughter is outside.
Hall, the housing authority attorney, said tougher policies are crucial for residents who don't have the means to move away from drug problems.