Creating a safe and happy home in a dangerous space

Guest post by Rachel Mokhtari
can you be safe in a dangerous neighborhood
WTF is going on out there!? (Photo by: Paulo OrdovezaCC BY 2.0)

We very intentionally moved to our current home after a series of not-quite-right trials elsewhere in the country. The thing to know about our particular city is that people find a house and claim it for good. At any time, there could be fewer than a dozen properties for sale, and when we were searching there were fewer than five. Despite this reality, we happened to find the perfect house on Craigslist. We called the owner; he offered to show it the next morning, and we bought it.

It stretched our finances, but we loved it. It had a family history. Children had grown up, and been loved, here. There was a secret hiding spot under the stairs where we found a message for future inhabitants written in a seven-year-old’s scrawl: “Dont ever change this spot. My sister and I lik to play hear.” So did my son, and his brother. In the basement, there was a beam where kids had been measured each year, and we happily continued the tradition in the same spot.

Across from the house was a common wooded land which all nine houses on the block partially owned and shared. It had a pond for skating and fishing, and a ramshackle warming house which my husband dreamed of restoring someday. It connected to miles of snowshoeing and hiking paths.

In such a site, we saw our lives unfolding with love, adventure, and fresh air. And then, we lived in the home for a year, and realized things were not the way they had first seemed. The less pleasant characteristics of our neighborhood began to creep in, and their severity ranged from small to glaring.

Stray dogs, shady neighbors, and illegal activities

It only took a week to realize our yard did not belong to us. Cryptic comments from the previous owners about the “occasional dog” in no way prepared us for the daily five-to-ten canine visitors who regularly used our property for their bathroom, evaded all attempts to catch them, and trotted off home only to return again later that afternoon. Besides the mess, most of the animals towered far taller than my children. The friendly ones knocked them over; the mean ones barked and growled.

We made daily visits to our dog-owning neighbors near and far to plead our case. More often than not, the response was hostile. Sometimes, it was frightfully so. We started putting up a fence, and then learned that our city doesn’t allow them without consent from the neighbors. They were not inclined to consent with us.

We had also realized that while the neighborhood had many signs of children having had lived there at one time, no children but ours currently inhabited it. (Maybe they were all eaten by dogs?)

But the neighborhood dog pack turned out to be the least of our troubles. At a tag sale, I browsed through my neighbor’s rickrack and happened to notice a woman next-door peeking out behind the kitchen curtains. I waved, and she disappeared, Boo-Radley style. “I haven’t met her yet,” I commented to the neighbor whose driveway I stood in.

“Yes,” she replied uncomfortably, “Well, since you’ve noticed her, I should let you know…” and subsequently informed me that the woman’s son, who lived with her, was a registered child sex offender, recently released from his prison term.

Like responsible parents, we had looked up the state sex offender registry before purchasing our house, expecting to find a scatter plot map of where the offenders resided. Instead, we realized our state provided a name and photo of all thirteen sex offenders, but did not provide their local addresses. “Strange,” we thought. “But what are the chances of living next door to one?” Well, pretty good, in our case.

I stood in my yard and looked around. From the swing set where my children played, there was a direct line of sight to the porch window of the sex offender. From the giant boulder where my children went sledding, there was a direct line of sight to the kitchen window of the sex offender. From the playhouse, from the blueberry bushes, the woodlot, on and on — all within sight of that man.

We called the man’s social worker, who gave us nothing but worse news: Yes, he had committed crimes against multiple children. Yes, he had lived at that house for twenty years, and she expected he would continue to live there indefinitely. Yes, he had access to the common land across the street and no current restrictions upon him.

We hiked through the common land again, which had been one of the greatest draws of the property, as we envisioned our sons as young Tom Sawyers using it for their explorations. Now, we saw it through another lens. We saw all the places a person could hide in wait for his prey. We looked at the old dilapidated warming house, with its crumbling walls and broken windows, and we shuddered.

And then, while walking those greatly esteemed snowshoeing paths through the woods, we saw a strange sight: a makeshift stove in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an odd assortment of bottles and canisters. A few pots were suspended above torches on strings. Besides the menu of assorted chemicals, the mysterious chef of the woods had left behind a sizable quantity of half smashed beer cans scattered over the forest floor. Ominous, indeed.

Is it better to live in a cardboard box, if it’s safe, than in a nice house in a dangerous place?

How do you give your family a safe and happy home? That was a question that stood out above all now.

But it’s not a simple thing to move again. As I mentioned, the number of homes for sale in our area was slim, and there was honestly no way to prevent the same situation from occurring again, unless we canvassed the potential neighborhood. “Excuse me, we are thinking about moving in. Can you tell me if you have any pedophiles present? Is anyone manufacturing methamphetamines in the woods back there? Oh, and are you planning to let your large dogs roam unchecked around my yard?” That conversation wasn’t likely to happen.

And what about all the children who can’t avoid living in dangerous places around the world? What about all the other parents — the ones who can’t afford to be picky, or the ones who don’t want the hour-long commute? What about the oft-generalized inner-city kids growing up above the drug lords and brothels? What is their walk to school like each day? And more to my immediate needs, how do their parents cope with their reality? How do I cope with mine, and do the best that I can in a bad situation?

Change what we can, and let go of the rest

That’s not to say that I decided to throw up my hands and leave my children to the winds. Our motto is “Change what we can, and let go of the rest,” with specific emphasis on the change part. It turns out, there’s a lot that can be changed. For now, I can change the way we use our space. It’s not always convenient, and it’s not always my first choice of how to do things, but I can do it.

Now, we rent a plot in a community garden site rather than garden in our yard in company of the sex offender and meth maker, and at the mercy of the dogs. Now, I am reasonably polite to inconsiderate neighbors but no longer bend over backward hoping to make friends. For now, my children and I hike together in the common land with pepper spray in tow, and a cell phone.

I am learning to take back some control. I have learned that if you can’t create a safe landscape, you can create safe pockets of that landscape. And you can always work harder on the “happy” part of that “safe and happy” vision.

Creating a happy childhood in an unsafe environment

Part of creating that happiness for my kids is to try to equip them with the coping skills to deal with a less-than-ideal, or unsafe, environment. So in my house, we do a lot of art. We tell many stories of bravery, responsibility, and overcoming misfortune. We play music. We build things, large and small, every day. We go on different kinds of adventures than the ones I once envisioned: car trips, hikes through state parks, visits to friends, museums, libraries. We aim to fill our children’s days with laughter and light, but we also try to teach them ways to heal themselves when their cup is less full.

Not on my children’s radar, other projects abound. There are hedges planted. Kids’ artwork are hung strategically in windows to block out certain views. There are extra locks installed on doors. We play in different parts of the house during different times of the day, and there are some times when we avoid going outside. There is pepper spray and a telephone within reach of every room.

Sometimes “safe” is a frame of mind

It is certainly not foolproof against outside threats, but it is something we can do. And, until we can more drastically change our circumstances, it helps. It particularly helps still my mind, and helps me be a better, less distracted and anxious, mother to my children. Which will, in turn, I hope, make my children grow up to be more happy and grounded persons who can cope better with whatever situation they find themselves in.

I suppose what I am doing is trying to cultivate a safe and happy place in our minds. And I tell myself that for anyone, anywhere, in whatever bad situation that feels powerless – this is one thing over which they have some control. Sometimes a safe and happy home has to be a frame of mind.

Comments on Creating a safe and happy home in a dangerous space

  1. We live in the same kind of environment, but ours is a townhouse. We can smell when the nasty neighbors smoke pot in their basement, as it leaks into ours. My son is autistic and he will comment when children come to our door and smell horrible like cat pee and stale cigarette smoke. Supposedly there are no sex offenders here ( they do checks pre move in) BUT that just means they have been caught. Who knows what goes on in a person mind as the kids play at the park 100 feet outside our patio. Are they a dad watching a child, or some perv? This is not a ghetto by any means. I just think peoples morals are just going down. Its just sad. My son will never have a fort without adult supervision, or walk to the store for a bottle of pop. No wonder kids have no imaginations and are overweight. They cant even go outside safely to exercise! Just sad.

  2. Wow, you are a brave a woman and I really like this article.

    Could you plant trees like cypresses to make a virtual fence in your backyard? They grow quickly, and a leyland cyprus would block the view of the pedophile. Prickly plants like roses would work for the front yard and still would look pretty while keeping the pups out.

    Also, could you call the animal control on the dogs? There’s a leash law, right? Or call the cops on the meth maker? It might tick off some people, but it might make the place safer to live for in the future.

  3. Surely you can plead your case to the city about an exception for building a fence?? If they know you have a registered sex offender living next door, criminal activity behind your backyard and that you have children they might reconsider?

  4. Wow, that’s so sad about the dangers at a place that seemed so promising, but great job changing your MO.

    I would also recommend large cacti as fencing. This was actually used around General Vallejo’s fort in the area I grew up in, and while they might be expensive to buy, over time they create an excellent and scary barrier no fence can compete with.

    • I second this! My grandma had a ‘wall’ of cacti around the chicken coop to fend off strays and predators. it worked. I also recomend bamboo, yeah it spreads like a weed, but if you build boxes/barriers for it, it will become a tall and thick wall of sorts soon.

      • Don’t use the spreading bamboo, you can get clumping kinds that are not invasive. They start out small but grow into a big clump and make a great fence.

  5. This reminds me of a friend’s parents’ house, and it makes me happy. They own a townhouse in a neighborhood that went downhill since they purchased it (I expect they bought it over 25 years ago, maybe more). They’ve had an occasional break-in but usually only when some opportunity was present (a door was left open, construction was going on so windows were open). One of our friends even got mugged while going to her car.

    Nonetheless, the inside of their house is wonderful, and I always felt safe there, even if the neighborhood outside required being on your guard. The house is filled with their (now grown) children’s art projects, pictures, books, family keepsakes. It is so happy and wonderful – you would never know that they live near one of those notorious parks or a block away from the kind of street you probably shouldn’t spend time on, even in the day. They even have a nice patio out back. My friend and her sister seem to have had a great childhood, and they also grew up with lots of street smarts.

    And now the neighborhood is on a bit of an upward trend . . . especially if you are planning to live somewhere long term, things often change.

  6. I just want to say to you, kudos, kudos, kudos! Although we lived in a good neighbourhood growing up there was a kidnapper roaming around there for several years during my childhood…and my parents’ response was to basically forbid my brother and me from going outside without them. I understand why they did it, and fortunately they still took us lots of interesting places, but I am really hoping that my own children will be able to play outside much more than I did. Good for you for finding creative solutions.

    Also, I think the cactus idea is really intriguing and worth exploring!

  7. I really don’t mean to sound rude or harsh but after reading “There is pepper spray and a telephone within reach of every room.” all I could think was… ‘why on earth would you want to live in a place like that’? Finding another home may not be an option, but relocating slightly always is. I’d rather face a commute and being further from family and friends than live somewhere that I’m constantly on guard. For me, a house like that would never be a home. Having a “safe and happy place” in ones mind cannot ever be substituted for actual safety. It sounds to me like you’re trying to make the best out of a terrible situation, but in my opinion, you’re absolutely kidding yourselves.

    • If Ms. Mokhtari bought this house, it’s not that easy to sell. Even if the market is good and people don’t know about all these issues (which may or may not be the case), it’s going to deter buyers to see that she so recently bought it and is now trying to sell it. Also, moving can be super expensive and may not be affordable right after the cost of moving in, so even if she’s renting, that may not be an option. And Ms. Mokhtari may not be able to move away from certain amenities if she doesn’t have reliable and affordable transportation.

      I agree that the situation sucks, and I don’t know enough to know if it was avoidable or not, but I don’t think “just move” is a great solution for RIGHT NOW (otherwise she would probably have already done that, what with following the “change” part of the serenity prayer), though it may well be in the future.

      I think you’re “absolutely kidding your[self]” about the reality of some people’s lives and financial situations.

  8. UGH!
    I believe everyone should have access to safe housing, but that’s not a reality. We have our own troubles, living in a less-desirable part of a nice neighbourhood. THE DOG POOP IS UNENDING. The drug deals that happen on the corner. The people driving too fast on the road.
    Safety issues also include mould and asbestos in homes in poorer neighbourhoods. And it’s maddening to feel trapped and disrespected, but you seem to have risen to the occasion, and that makes me hopeful.

    As a professional gardener, I’m always looking for ways to keep pests out of yards. I’m going to try a vinegar fence. Essentially, pour a bunch of vinegar in a perimeter. Apparently dogs hate it. It’ll mess up your grass, but no more than dogs already do.
    As for the sex offender….dear Maude. That’s intense. Again, you have found creative solutions to a disheartening (to understate it) situation, and it’s inspiring.
    Great post, well done.

  9. You are truly amazing, and a beautiful writer. You have a lot of circumstances stacked against you, but you have reframed them and your mindset to be able to deal with them. The dogs are one thing, and you are right not to take that lightly (especially with neighbors who really don’t care to control them around small children, eek), but add a possible meth lab in the woods and a convicted pedophile next door?! Wow.

    I wouldn’t fault you if you did move, though. I know I would only be able to deal with feeling less safe in my home for so long before I would want to leave. Just make sure it doesn’t become a missing stair-type situation, where you’ve gotten so used to coping around the awful things that you don’t notice the damage it might do to you all in the long run.

    But either way, you are passing on a whole lot of good things to your children–resiliency, making the best of difficult circumstances out of your control, and the lesson that not everyone is trustworthy and good but there are still things to celebrate.

  10. My husband grew up in Detroit, in a neighborhood that was once nice working class, but has since degraded into a lot of Section 8 housing. Certainly our nephew plays at grandma’s with supervision, and there are extra locks on the doors. But it’s still a home with a lovely tended garden, a solid front porch, and lots of love and caring.
    There’s always danger lurking in the world, it’s how we react and cope with it. Reacting by using the neighborhood as a teaching tool is a good approach.

  11. I loved this piece. I love how the writer is focusing on what she can do and she’s sharing suggestions that are easy for other people to follow. Because you’re right; just because YOU can move doesn’t mean that the person reading this article can. I’d much rather read your easy suggestions (art work on windows! using different rooms at different times! more locks! a community garden patch!) than read something like, “I lived in a bad neighborhood, and in order to protect my children, I moved them away from the sex offender.” Thank you for your absolutely HELPFUL piece.

    • I just wanted to say how wonderful it is that you included “what about all the children who can’t avoid living in dangerous places around the world… what about all the other parents — the ones who can’t afford to be picky?” I often think of this when I read articles centered around “my children need better___.” I certainly admire that people want to give their children the best, but “the best” isn’t always possible. I’d argue that growing up with a mentality of “do the best I can and let go of the rest,” is setting your children up for happy, productive lives, no matter their circumstances.

      Thanks for the encouragement and best of luck!

  12. For the first five years of my oldest daughter’s life we lived in what is considered to be a better neighborhood in Stockton, Ca. we had all of the bad things you mentioned except for the dogs. the truth is we spent our lives very much on edge all the time. My kids never ran free at the park, I was always beside them, same with any other public place. I always had my pepper spray cocked and ready and we NEVER spoke to strangers, not even clerks and checkers, it’s kind of the culture in Stockton to only say as much as you need to to people you don’t know. I didn’t realize how up tight I really was until I moved. The move was unplanned or at least unexpected , I now live in a middle class neighborhood in Reno, it’s much nicer than even the best parts of Stockton. I let my kids play in the yard, as far as I know we have no sex offenders ( checked before moving). Other people let their kids play in the street or wander stores alone. (I’m not there, I think Stockton has ruined me for that)It was weird for me the first time a mom sat down on a park bench and talked to me. I applaud you for standing your ground, however I would apply to the city to put in a fence, state the sex offender I’m sure his PO will back you up. You might also bring pictures of the dog pack that roams your neighborhood. Also call animal control about loose dogs it’s illegal to let dogs roam free, and is accompanied by crazy fines. Be pushy and get the things you want. It’s not fair to you or your kids to have to live in fear.

  13. The truth is that it is like that ANYWHERE you move… there will always be sex offenders, meth makers, pot smokers, some weird camper camping out in the woods, and so on everywhere you go no matter what. Those things are pretty normal anywhere you go and they do not make it a bad neighborhood at all. Statistics show that crime rates have actually dropped 30 percent in the last 20 years but it seems scarier because of the internet. It used to be you never heard what went on anywhere and now with instant media access we hear about everything and it all sounds like it is happening in our back yards. The truth is nothing in terms of crimes has changed since before the internet, we are just more aware of it. The chances of anything bad happening to your kids is none to slim to zero. There are all these new studies out about how helicopter parenting is really damaging to kids psychologically and mentally and can hurt a child’s development. And how kids need unstructured free time away from adults to be mentally healthy (like we did as children). Helicopter parenting can stunt a child’s personal growth and create problems all the way into adulthood. It is really bad.

    For my kids I give them the knowledge and skills for each situation and let them be. They play outside for hours on their own. They are home for lunch and dinner and dark and have to stick together with a phone in a certain area (an area of five miles from home that is all woods). They play freely with nothing but their imagination to guide them.

    The news loves to put the fear into people and they feed off of that fear to make ratings. It is really sad and has destroyed community.

    • Thisx100! I wrote a whole comment to this piece yesterday basically saying the same thing, without realizing that my laptop was about to die, and lost it all. 🙂

      I understand the sex offender fears, but they really are everywhere and the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows who they are and is watching them actually makes them less likely to re-offend. I think that the “playing in different parts of the house” depending on whether he might not see in the windows and the refusing to allow the kids into the yard because he might see them is excessive and might be damaging to the kids. Even if the OP is not telling them specifically why they’re doing it, her panic about it is I’m sure obvious to the kids. And making them feel like their home is not a secure place is damaging. Not trying to be judgy, just saying; for their sakes, it might be best to ease off a bit. Don’t be neglectful and stupid, but for gods sakes, let the kids OUTSIDE sometimes in their own yard. Just because the pedo can see them from his window does not mean that he’s going to do anything.

      As for the sketchy stuff outside/in the woods…welcome to life in the 21st century. Our neighborhood is slowly gentrifying, thank goodness, but I still find drug paraphernalia in the woods. The neighborhood park is lovely and walkable, but after dark it is drug and hooker heaven. Refusing to use common spaces actually makes them MORE likely to be overrun by scumbags and criminals. The more people in a neighborhood venture out into common spaces and live the lives they want outside, the better the neighborhood becomes. Hiding inside just allows crime to worsen.

      Also, there are natural remedies to keep dogs out of the yard, and if that does not work I heartily recommend approaching your municipality for a zoning variance regarding the fencing, given your circumstances. It is asinine that you have to rent a garden when you have a usable backyard because assholes can’t keep their dogs contained. I don’t think you should forfeit the use of your yard because the sex offender *might* look outside and see you doing so, either. He’s the criminal, and he’s being watched; letting him make you a prisoner in your own home is not doing anything to fix the situation.

  14. I’ve noticed a lot of comments about this scenario only applying to low income people. I am the first to admit I am very blessed with financial security and I purchased a home in the “it” neighborhood in a very desirable town in Southern Ontario. Let me tell you about my neighbors: across the street there is a pot dealer, behind us we suspect some sort of drug house is opening up, 3 doors down a half-way house, down the block is a “high end” escort, and then there is the hoarder beside us. Mixed in is us, doctors, lawyers, and professors. Property values are $320k -$500k. Oh, did I mention the murder 500 meters from my doorstep?
    Its really unfair to say that this sort of thing is unique to lower income people/places. It is also unfair to say the authorities don’t care about things that happen in lower income neighborhoods – I have been trying to get rid of the drug dealer for 3 years because his customers park in front of my house, throw their garbage on my lawn, puke on my lawn, come to MY house by mistake, even go to my back door at 3 am! I have had zero results from the cops. Shitty situations exist everywhere…not just in lower income places. I had more results and felt better about being home alone at night when I lived in South Boston.

  15. Oh my. I wish this mom and her family all the best.
    Aside from the neighborhood threats I feel compelled to mention the danger of blinds (per the photo of the cat) above. A college acquaintance recently lost her 2 year old son who died after being strangled by cords from window blinds.

  16. I love that you are finding solutions that are actionable now.

    To block the view into your house you could create stained glass windows with glass paint or have bathroom glass (you know the stuff thats all frosted with fancy patterns on it) so that the light comes in but people cant see in. If you dont want to (or cant afford to) put in new windows or paint the windows you could use a sheet of clear plastic to paint on and be able to change the designs or use bubblewrap to create the dappled-cant-really-see-in affect, or painted bubble wrap for a cheap changeable fun solution. Can you imagine how much fun it would have been as a child to be given a box of paints and told to just ‘paint the window’. If you arent so worried about the light getting in then kids poster paint is great because it can be washed off and changed to fit whatever you want, we do this in the kids room at work and it works a trea.

    I also love everyones ideas for creating boundaries, viewblockers and security using plants. The growing bamboo fence sounds amazing and no-one would mess with a prickly bush fence.

    • Great ideas here! There is also this thin plastic you can buy at Home Depot that looks like stained glass (actually very pretty), and comes in rolls, and you cut it to size, and just rub it onto the window. I used it when I had a bathroom in an old building that had a ventilation shaft outside the window, looking right into the neighbor’s bathroom. The steam from the shower did not muss it. I also cut small squares for an old paned, sliding dining room door. It was gorgeous.

      • Yes! I’ve done this on an accent window on my front door, and the windows in my basement. I had a hell of a time finding the plastic film, until my dad found them in the same aisle that you get the plastic liner you can put in drawers and cabinets.

      • I did something similar on the sidelights of my front door with lace I cut to size and starch I made from cornstarch. I found some tutorials online and used them for guidance. One panel is still up, the other needs to be reapplied (almost a year later) because my cats fiddled with it. This may not work in a humid location like a bathroom.

    • Offbeat home did a post on using tissue paper and modge podge to allow light in but provide privacy on windows. I did it on our bedroom window that faces a neighbor, and now we can open the curtians before we get out of bed, and walk around naked in all that glorious sunlight without worrying about neighbor’s catching sight!

  17. My grandmother was a very private person, but lived in a twin, on a street where homes were pretty close together. She even shared a front porch.
    She hung wide roll up bamboo curtains in between her side of the porch and theirs, like this:
    You could use something like that to block your neighbors view.

  18. Sorry if this has been suggested (I only read about half of the comments). My grandparents put in holly bushes under all of their windows as some security. Those suckers hurt when you step, fall, brush them. And by the time they left the house they had 30 ft holly trees in their back yard because of similar fence issues.

    Either way, I am so very impressed with your ability to make lemonade, in a beautiful glass, with a garnish, out of this situation! It’s very inspiring!

  19. I want to thank you for writing this. While I don’t have kids, or live next to a convicted sex offender (that I know of), I am currently in a place in my life that feels like a lot is going surprisingly wrong around me. I moved to a new town and started a new job about 2 years ago. What started as excitement and hope about entering the next chapter of my life has quickly turned into daily frustration and tears over my stressful job, my immediate supervisor, and the town I live in.

    A few days ago I stumbled across this article and I’ve read it a number of times since then. Your motto of “change what you can and let go of the rest” rings so true to me, and has really helped me reclaim my usual optimism (which the last two years had drained me of). Reclaiming control over what I can, reminding myself to focus on all that’s going right (rather than what’s going wrong), and letting the rest roll off my back until I can afford to move on to something better is exactly the mindset I needed help to find – thanks so much for shining a spotlight on it for me!! 😀

    I keep this tab open on my web browser and it will probably stay open for a while so I can keep glancing back at it to remind me to hang in there!! We’re in this together!

  20. Yeah, I live in South Africa – no matter WHERE you go it’s a dangerous place.
    But I grew up like this, so we’ve become accustomed to daily security measures. However, when Mr Rage and I bought a home in his hometown we realised that the incidences of crime are much more frequent than where I grew up and I find myself living in a home with an alarm system and armed response.

    The worst part? All of us in the neighbourhood have this installed and we play musical chairs with false alarm activations :/

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