A group of mothers facing possible eviction from Charleston public housing shuddered at a frightening image: 25 children lined up outside a homeless shelter.
That could happen, they said, if a hearing officer with the Charleston Housing Authority decides that it's best to evict five families from the Gadsden Green housing complex because teenage sons from each family have been charged in an October armed robbery. Between them, the single mothers heading the families have at least 25 children.
"That's not an exaggeration," Rushika Robertson, one of the mothers, said of the prospect of becoming homeless. "That would let people see how real it is."
Gadsden Green is a complex of apartment buildings that currently houses 262 families near the Crosstown Expressway between Hagood and President streets.
The Housing Authority said serious criminal charges against any individual allow it to evict the entire family for the good of their neighbors. Tenants sign a lease that includes a zero- tolerance policy for serious or repeat offense.
This policy and ones like it have been controversial in Charleston and elsewhere. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced a hard line against drugs, backing rules that permit eviction of families from federally subsidized housing if any family member or guest is involved in narcotics.
Robertson and two other women facing eviction said they do not condone the criminal activity of which their sons are accused. As a compromise, they said they would even send the teens to stay with other family members, if the rest of the immediate family can stay put. Despite what the Housing Authority says about protecting the community, the mothers said their neighbors overwhelmingly want them to stay.
"These ladies are not getting put out," said Ruby Washington, a Gadsden Green resident and supporter. "We're going to do something to stop it."
Housing Authority CEO Donald Cameron said even if a hearing officer decides against the families, they still have a chance to appeal the case to a county magistrate before anyone is evicted.
Trouble for the five families started Oct. 20 when Charleston police said a pack of youths tried to rob one man on Wentworth Street and robbed another man of his cell phone on Montagu Street. In both cases, the weapon used appeared to be a pellet gun, according to police reports.
Police reported detaining six teens between the ages of 14 and 16 nearby on charges of robbery and attempted armed robbery. The case is pending in Family Court, the families said.
During an interview Friday, Robertson, two other mothers and a couple of supporters vowed to fight the eviction process. Attorney Skip Martin of Charleston has taken their case and Charleston City Councilman Wendell Gilliard has taken up their cause.
"There has to be some kind of compromise," Gilliard said. "You can't sacrifice the many for the few."
They are asking supporters to attend the Housing Authority meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday and a rally at 4 p.m. Dec. 8 in Nichols Chapel AME Church.
Robertson, a mother of seven children between 3 and 14 years old, said she has been living at the complex about five months. She has been training to become a nurse and is getting back on her feet, she said. But she said she's afraid to even buy Christmas presents with the threat of losing their homes.
Portland Grays, whose 15-year-old has been charged in the robberies, has lived in the complex about two years. She said she worries that the public won't see her for the hardworking person she is, a freelance grant writer with six children between the ages of 2 and 26.
She said the threat of eviction "is like a cloud over our heads daily."