‘I’m afraid for my life’: Safety is scarce for many in Camden’s senior housing

A lack of security at their apartment complexes makes life dangerous for many Camden seniors. Buildings’ operators refuse to hire guards.

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On July 9, Ferry Station tenant Sarah Rogers, right, tries to prevent a non-resident from entering her senior apartment complex, where trespassers have been sleeping in community areas and hallways, frightening residents and sometimes leaving human excrement behind. (April Saul for WHYY)

On July 9, Ferry Station tenant Sarah Rogers, right, tries to prevent a non-resident from entering her senior apartment complex, where trespassers have been sleeping in community areas and hallways, frightening residents and sometimes leaving human excrement behind. (April Saul for WHYY)

On July 9, Sarah Rogers, 72, tried to keep a much younger woman from entering Conifer Village at Ferry Station, a Camden senior housing complex where Rogers lives and where the front door was broken and unlocked again.

The stranger said she was visiting a “Barbara” on the third floor, then corrected herself and said it was actually the second floor.

Rogers believed her to be one of the trespassers residents say have been using her apartment building as a place to do drugs or engage in prostitution, leave “piss jars” in hallways, haunt the exercise, computer, and laundry rooms, and bang on residents’ doors all night long.

The younger woman started to back away as the two exchanged insults.

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Suddenly, Rogers — who has COPD — stood up and pushed her walker-wheelchair to the side. “Bring it on!” she shouted, as the visitor stormed off.

A few minutes earlier, Rogers had reported being startled by a strange man in the fitness room who ran out, pulling his pants up and wearing a towel on his head, when she opened the door.

The rules say you have to be at least 62 to move into the 50-unit Ferry Station — and 55 to be a tenant at its twin Ferry Manor, a stone’s throw away.

But you better be tough.

On July 8, community activists flocked to both buildings after hearing that security at Ferry Station was threatened by the broken door. They shared their confrontations with property managers over the lack of safety on Facebook Live, and discovered that even the reporting of problems — from badly-stained carpets to leaky ceilings to mice infestation — was an arduous process for the elderly tenants.

The door was fixed on July 13. By then, Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen and City Council members Chris Collins and Sheila Davis — both of whom had visited residents at the buildings after the door incident — had decided to meet with building managers there and at other senior complexes in Camden on July 19 to discuss security issues.

Ferry Manor tenant Patricia Alford holds a sign at an informal meeting of residents in front of her building on July 11. (April Saul for WHYY)

Only a few senior facilities in Camden have security guards. Throughout the city, elderly residents have reported being left to fend off intruders, whether the non-residents entered through a malfunctioning door, or the actions of a careless tenant.

The interlopers can be deadly. Last year, two tenants perished and two others were critically injured jumping from the third floor in a fire at Camden’s Cra-West apartments, which was not senior housing. An intruder, who entered through a front door residents said had been broken for weeks, was arrested for allegedly starting the blaze.

Even when they don’t confront trespassers directly, tenants still feel their presence.

At the four-year-old public housing complex The Branches at Centerville, resident Cynthia Muse said that last week, she cleaned up urine and human feces in a hallway. The Branches, which has no guards, advertises “patio, deck or balcony” as features, but the large outdoor terraces are now closed off to residents and furniture has been removed from common areas on each floor that residents said had served as lounges.  One tenant said she has been throwing her key down to visitors because the front door buzzer no longer works.

On July 14, Branches at Centerville resident Cynthia Muse gets a hug from activist Mary Cortes. (April Saul for WHYY)

In a statement, Marc Getson, vice president of management at the Michaels Corporation which oversees the complex, said that requiring residents to come down to the lobby to allow visitors entry was one of “some temporary and some permanent measures” recently instituted “to discourage uninvited guests.” Although Getson denied The Branches had experienced security issues, he said measures also included securing windows and exterior doors, and removing some furniture from the lobby.

At the Faison Mews senior apartment complex in Parkside, several residents who asked to remain anonymous said intruders are not uncommon, and are frightening. “You have to swipe the door,” said one, “but they come in behind you.” One tenant said the would-be trespassers press apartment numbers on the intercom constantly, hoping that a tenant will inadvertently open the door. There are no security guards.

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Pennrose Properties, which manages Faison Mews, said, “The property has several security measures in place, including controlled access entry, 24/7 monitored security cameras, and an on-site professional management team.”

While the website for its parent company, Conifer Realty, LLC, says Ferry Station offers residents “a full day of fun or a nice relaxing environment within their home.” Several tenants said they listened for the sound of intruders testing doorknobs in the middle of the night. “Sometimes I sleep in my chair,” said Regina Sease, 73, “because I can hear the rattling. I’m afraid for my life and everyone else’s.”

Sease said management “tells you to call the cops, the cops tell us to call the office, the office says it’s our duty to put them out.”

Under “Features & Amenities,” Conifer’s website says both Ferry Station and Ferry Manor have “controlled building access.”

The Branches at Centerville in Camden. (April Saul for WHYY)

A mile away, at the Birchwood at Parker Hall apartments for seniors 55 and over, tenant Myra Vaughns said the front door there has at times been broken and open “for months.” Vaughns said she reported addicts in the stairwell preparing to shoot up to her property manager, Ronda High, who had them removed.

In a November 2020 letter to the Ingerman Group, which runs both Parker and Antioch Manor next door, Vaughns described non-residents doing drugs, sleeping in common areas, and stealing a community room television. She said in the letter she had sold her gun after moving to Parker Hall, “but feel as though I should buy another.” She said her pleas for more security went unheeded.

Antioch Manor is considered by some to be one of the most dangerous senior complexes in the city. Lessie Roberts, 74, moved from Antioch to Ferry Station two years ago, because, she said, “Antioch is worse,” with drug dealers sleeping under the steps and tenants “scared to go to the laundry room.”

Antioch Manor in Camden. (April Saul for WHYY)

On July 15, the Antioch Manor apartments were accessible through a broken, unlocked door. A resident who declined to give her name said it had been like that for over a week; a side door was ajar.

High, senior property manager for both buildings, said she did not feel comfortable speaking without Ingerman’s permission; the company did not immediately return WHYY’s inquiries.

The activists who helped bring attention to the situation at Ferry Station were rattled by what they found. “These are the years they’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying bingo,” said Tawanda Jones of the tenants she met.

At Ferry Station, Carmen Lozada and Je’Nell McRae went door-to-door recording residents’ complaints. Lozada said there should be a system for elderly tenants to easily express concerns. McRae said a suggestion that residents download a relatively new STOPit application to report problems to police was not practical. “They’re not buying brand-new smart phones, they’re comfortable with their flip phones,” she said. “They may not be able to see the numbers, much less type on them!”

On July 12, former Woodlynne councilman and state Senate candidate Clyde Cook, left; and Camden activist Carmen Lozada, center; talk to Ferry Manor residents about their concerns. (April Saul for WHYY)

Councilwoman Davis imagined the city creating “a special hotline for all seniors who feel like they’re being mistreated, whether it’s air or heat or the elevator’s not working or people are coming in and out.”

“It’s not only Ferry Manor,” said Davis, “it’s also happening in Parker Hall and Antioch Manor. These places are supposed to have security, but they don’t have anybody.  If it’s a financial hardship for the company, that’s not the seniors’ problem.”

Davis also envisioned some collaboration with law enforcement in the effort. After the door broke, Camden County police responded to residents’ and activists’ requests for help by driving by the Ferry buildings hourly.

On July 12, Clyde Cook, a former councilman in nearby Woodlynne and a current state Senate candidate, toured Ferry Manor and Ferry Station with property manager David Gilbert and met with residents. Gilbert, said Cook, told him that tenants didn’t always report problems promptly and that now that pandemic restrictions have lessened, repairs and renovations that had been on hold would be completed and quarterly meetings with residents would resume.

The Ferry Station senior housing complex in Camden. (April Saul for WHYY)

Cook said that when Gilbert told him that floors in the buildings were mopped twice weekly, he told the property manager they should be mopped three or four times a week, if not every day.

“COVID shouldn’t be an excuse to stop progress,” said Cook. “And if they’re following CDC guidelines, they should be taking steps to make sure everything is sanitized and clean because the seniors deserve better.”

Earlier that morning, human feces had been swept from an indoor staircase at the Manor with a broom, and Cook said he mentioned to Gilbert a strong smell of urine in the stairwell. He said Gilbert told him. “That’s not urine, it’s water dripping from the ceiling.’”

Cook said that Gilbert also told him that money for regular security officers “wasn’t within the budget.”

Some residents remembered a time when security guards were used at the Ferry buildings, which were built in 2006 and 2012, though nobody seems to know exactly when they disappeared. Conifer spokesperson Kate Griffin said, “Security was discontinued years ago after integrating a more robust security system, including cameras and key fob systems.” Since the recent complaints about the door, a security officer has been on duty intermittently at Ferry Station.

Griffin said that Ferry Station was scheduled for a physical inspection in 2020 by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA), but that it was not conducted because of the pandemic. She said she is “hopeful” physical inspections will resume in 2021, but has yet to get direction from HMFA.

On July 8, Ferry Manor resident Margie Hill uses her foot to open a door that is supposed to open automatically. (April Saul for WHYY)

Councilman Collins said he was upset by the Facebook video, which he considered dangerous.

“We don’t want to expose our seniors to harm’s way,” he said. “Filming the situation and putting it out on Facebook, you really let people know the situation is unsecure.”

Collins, who had done a walk-through of the two Ferry properties with Gilbert at the end of June, said he wasn’t sure that residents were putting in the appropriate work orders to get the repairs they needed and questioned the activists’ timing.

“I think some people jumped the gun,” he said. “It’s great that some people want to protect the seniors, but when you live in an apartment complex, who’s to say what’s more priority than another? He [Gilbert] just paid $800 to replace decorative light bulbs in the parking lot.”

Tawanda Jones was particularly disturbed by the comments of a maintenance worker at the Ferry buildings, who told her that contractors refused to come there after five o’clock and that when he fixes things, tenants just break them again.

“They’re very comfortable with this narrative, this stereotype” she said, “of this is how we live, and we don’t want anything better.”

Sarah Rogers has little faith in city lawmakers — who she said typically show up at her senior complex offering bingo games and snacks during political campaigns — to improve the situation.

“They don’t care,” she said, “unless one of them is on the ballot to be voted for.”

Mary Ali, 70, who lives at Ferry Manor, is no more optimistic.

“This is Camden,” she said. “And everybody needs to face the fact that they don’t think we deserve anything.”

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