Posted Friday, July 8, 7:00 p.m. As the sun began to set on the final day of June, 78-year-old David Sheehan sat alone on a bench outside St. Mary’s Court. Sheehan quietly dragged on his cigarette when a loud voice interrupted his smoke break: “It’s the last day! It’s your last one!” a fellow resident cried out, flashing a big grin at him.
Sheehan shook his head and waved the man away, but June 30 was the last day that he and the other residents of the Foggy Bottom elderly housing project at the corner of 24th and G streets could smoke inside or immediately near the apartment complex.
Last month St. Mary’s Court’s board of directors instituted a “smoke-free” policy throughout the building, effective July 1. Sheehan said he vehemently opposes the ban.
“Of course,” he said taking one last puff, “I am biased.”
But the safety issues arising from a string of recent fires at St. Mary’s led the board to review its smoking policy. Though St. Mary’s Court, located between the Health and Wellness Center and New Hall, is equipped with fire sprinklers in the hallways and smoke alarms in the individual apartments, the smoking ban was put in place to increase fire safety precautions in the building after its most recent fire.
In March, flames started by a dropped cigarette spread and engulfed the fifth floor, trapping several residents in their rooms and forcing scores of elderly residents to seek treatment for smoke inhalation and other injuries.
Margaret Pully, associate director of St. Mary’s Court, said the building has had many fires in its 26-year history, some related to smoking and some not. But after the most recent fire she said the board of directors put the issue to vote.
“Many of the residents came to us and said they wanted to have a smoke-free building,” Pully said.
But Sheehan said there are still some St. Mary’s residents who are not pleased with the new policy.
“Cities like New York have banned smoking in restaurants, in bars – but as strict as these places are, they would never think of not letting people smoke in their own apartments,” Sheehan said. “It infringes on a person’s liberty.”
Pully said that although some residents were “upset” by the ban, the smoke-free policy would improve the health and safety of all residents. She also noted that smoking will still be allowed on a small portion of the property outside the building and on an outdoor balcony on the ninth floor of the complex.
The new policy will be enforced by a three-strike policy, by which residents found smoking in the building will be issued warnings the first and second times they are caught smoking on the premises. Smokers will be subject to eviction after the third time, Pully explained.
“This doesn’t mean they will be evicted immediately, or even at all,” Pully said. She added that she “has no idea” how difficult it will be to stop smokers from lighting up inside their apartments.
“We won’t know until the policy begins in July,” she said last month. “But we’ll see. I have a feeling that neighbors will tell on neighbors.”
Sheehan called the possibility of eviction unfair, especially since many of the smokers cannot afford to go somewhere else.
“Most of the people who smoke here are in their 70s and 80s – if they’re kicked out, there are very few places they can go,” he said. “(St. Mary’s Court administrators) don’t care about it. I don’t think they think about it.”
Other residents of St. Mary’s Court, many of whom asked not to be quoted, said they had mixed feelings about the new policy. Some opposed the ban for personal freedom issues, some supported it for safety issues, and others remained neutral.
GW junior Violet Ricker, who has volunteered with the senior citizens at St. Mary’s Court, said prohibiting smoking on the premises is a positive step following the fire.
“The ban is a really smart idea,” she said. “The most important thing is to protect the safety of all the residents at St. Mary’s, smokers and non-smokers alike.”
Sheehan said that, ban or no ban, he and other smokers will not change their ways.
“They’re making scapegoats of cigarette smokers,” he said. “When we’re thrown out I’m going to call the newspapers in the area and have them take a picture of all these 70- and 80-year-olds, out on the grass with all our belongings. Then we’ll see how they like their ban.”