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Antelope Valley housing aid recipients tell of mistreatment by deputies

August 19, 2011 |  3:16 pm

Lee Baca and federal probe
Activists and others welcomed the news Friday that the U.S. Justice Department will investigate alleged discrimination by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies against mostly minority residents of government-subsidized housing.

“Our message is finally getting out,” said Pharaoh Mitchell, an Antelope Valley housing aid recipient and member of the Community Action League, a local human rights advocacy group.

He and others who receive what are known as Section 8 housing benefits, have been fighting unfair treatment for "a very long time,” he said. This investigation "is something that our community needs very badly.”

Mitchell received housing assistance after suffering a back injury in the Army that has left him unable to return to construction work, he said.

His family of eight was rousted in about a dozen compliance checks last year by armed deputies, he said. Deputies came up empty-handed after the intimidating six-hour raid, he added.

Shanna Blackburn was equally “glad that something is being done” about alleged mistreatment.

“It’s just been totally discrimination, totally harassment,” said Blackburn, 37. “What they are doing is completely wrong.”

Blackburn was receiving housing assistance for a home she was renting in Palmdale four years ago when, she said, armed deputies showed up at her door. It was early morning and she was out taking her younger children to school.

Her 17-year-old son was at home. Deputies accused him of being a gang member and raided Blackburn’s home in search of evidence to confirm that, she said.

They confiscated her computer and took away her son, leaving a search warrant on her kitchen counter, she recalled.

Blackburn insisted that her son was a good student and had never been in trouble. Deputies found nothing in the raid, and her son was never charged, she said.

But three months later, she received notice that her Section 8 benefits were being cut off.

“I’ve been trying to get help, trying to get my benefits back, but we’ve never gotten any help,” said the mother of three.

Palmdale resident and Section 8 recipient Barbara Collins said deputies raided her home several times last year over two months. On one occasion, they were looking for a man she denied knowing.

On another, they said there was a warrant out on her son. Then a local housing authority official showed up and said the paperwork for her housing aid had not been filled out properly.

“How could that be?” asked Collins, 45, also a mother of three and a full-time interior design student. "They check you and everything out before you can receive Section 8.”

Collins, whose housing benefits were eventually cut off, said she was happy to hear about the probe.

"They need to be investigated,” she said. “They are harassing people.”

Denetha Estell said constant harassment by sheriff’s deputies led her to give up the housing benefits she received to rent a four-bedroom single-family home in Palmdale.

Estell recalled how in December eight sheriff’s deputies showed up at her home in riot gear with guns drawn. They said they didn’t need a warrant to enter the property because one of her sons who lived with her was on probation, she said.

They told her it was a routine probation sweep, Estell said, and officers dragged her husband out of the shower and made him stand nude in front of the family while they searched the home.

Deputies didn’t find anything, Estell said. Her husband was subsequently charged with resisting arrest and remains in jail in lieu of $1-million bail.

On another occasion, Estell said her 18-year-old son and his friend were washing a car outside the family’s home when deputies showed up and handcuffed the men. Deputies said someone had seen them brandishing a gun, Estell said.

Police found no weapon and the two were eventually released, she said.

In February, Estell was summoned to a hearing about her housing assistance benefits. She didn’t show up.

“I was just scared,” she said. “I didn’t want to deal with it anymore … the harassment.”

She moved her family to a one-bedroom apartment. She said she is struggling to pay the rent on what she earns as a temporary home-based worker, but she welcomed the peace of mind of not being targeted anymore.

Attorneys for Antelope Valley residents who sued the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in June to protect fair housing praised the Justice Department’s “efforts to safeguard fair housing in the Antelope Valley and ensure people can seek a better life for their families free from harassment and fear.”

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-- Ann M. Simmons

Photo: L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, second from left, and Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Tom Perez on Friday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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