A group of state lawmakers and advocates for the Stop Bullying Coalition testify at the Statehouse on July 14, 2015 in support of a bill that would create a committee to look at ways to stop bullying in elderly and disabled public housing. (SHIRA SCHOENBERG / THE REPUBLICAN)
BOSTON - When Jerry Halberstadt, a seven-year resident of a public housing building in Peabody, arrived in public housing, he said he was bullied by a manager and a group of residents.
"It was do what we say, or we'll get rid of you," said Halberstadt, 79.
Bills pending before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Housing would create new committees to study ways to protect elderly and disabled public housing residents.
Halberstadt is an advocate for a bill that would create a committee to develop strategies to stop the bullying of disabled and elderly residents in subsidized housing. He and others testified Tuesday before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Housing.
Bonny Zeh, a disabled resident of a Somerville public housing apartment since 2008, told the legislative committee about enduring years of abuse at the hands of other residents - including threats, catcalls, obscene gestures and cruel jokes.
"For five years, I was... subject to a near daily dose of verbal abuse and bullying by six to 10 mostly elderly residents," Zeh said.
Kathleen Burke, a board member of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants and past president of a Salem housing tenants association, said she witnessed and learned of multiple incidents of bullying by seniors and people with disabilities, including incidents escalating to bodily harm.
"My sensibilities tell me that having to legislate anti-bullying is ludicrous, but it's not," Burke said.
The bill, S.709, was sponsored by State Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and has bipartisan co-sponsors.
"Elder abuse is something that should never, ever happen," said State Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, a co-sponsor of the bill.
A separate bill, H.1094, sponsored by Rep. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, would establish a task force to study how to ensure the safety of elderly and disabled people living side by side in public housing buildings.
DiZoglio filed her bill in response to a triple murder at a public housing building in North Andover in January. A resident with bipolar disorder was charged with murdering three elderly neighbors in their apartments.
Ellen Walker, who lives in the North Andover apartment complex where the murders occurred, said the murders sparked a "divisive atmosphere of us, elderly tenants, versus them, tenants with disabilities."
Kim Flowers, a social worker at Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, who worked with a support group that responded to the North Andover murders, said a task force is needed to figure out best practices to ensure the rights and personal safety of both elderly adults and younger, disabled people living in public housing.
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Bullying of elderly, disabled subject of public housing bills