For a 23-year-old man who moved into a low-income housing complex in downtown Moorpark three weeks ago, the new apartment is his first chance to start life away from his mother's home.
But his attempt at independence has been met by fear and suspicion among many of the elderly residents at the complex, jeopardizing the man's chance for a new life, a local housing official said.
The young man, whose family requested that his name be withheld, is disabled by severe vocal and facial tics caused by Tourette Syndrome, an apparent genetic disorder.
Although he stands 6 feet, 4 inches and weighs more than 200 pounds, "I don't think I'm scary," the man said in a slow, soft-spoken manner.
On the contrary, he said, "I'm kind of scared of living on my own for the first time."
For his elderly neighbors, part of the problem might be that they were told that the 30-unit Tafoya Terrace is a senior citizens' complex, residents and officials said.
The man is the first person younger than 62 to live at Tafoya since it was built eight years ago.
"This is supposed to be for the seniors," Lupe Ramirez, 72, said this week.
The man was placed in the building, said David C. Roddick, director of housing management at the Area Housing Authority, because federal housing regulations include the handicapped and disabled in the definition of senior citizens.
A group of Tafoya residents protested earlier this week to City Council members and to the Area Housing Authority, which manages the complex, saying they are frightened of the tall, stocky new resident.
"He scares all the people here," said Saturnina Hernandez, 82, one of more than 30 senior citizens living in the courtyard building. Hernandez said she hasn't used the building's laundry room since the man moved in because she's afraid of coming into contact with him.
Tafoya resident Ralph Johnson, 72, who helps manage the complex, said nearly all the residents are elderly women living alone. "The old ladies are just scared of some young guy like that," he said.
Roddick said the housing agency would not have placed the man at the complex if he was dangerous to other residents.
During a recent interview at his new apartment, the young man said he was just as surprised as his elderly neighbors when he learned his new apartment would be in a seniors' building.
"I'm kind of intimidated by living here," he said. "I really haven't talked much to anybody. I'm keeping a low profile."
He said he has been spending most of his time in his apartment, whose sparse furnishings include a small color television and a couch and living-room chair that he and his mother had just bought.
He does take medication, he said, but only to control the facial and vocal tics caused by Tourette Syndrome, which some researchers believe is a genetic disorder.
An estimated 1 million Americans suffer from Tourette, although a far smaller number have been diagnosed, according to some researchers. While all Tourette victims exhibit some sort of body or vocal tics, some have bizarre symptoms such as uncontrollable utterings of obscenities or involuntary mimicking of the movements of others, according to researchers at the City of Hope.
The young man at Tafoya and his mother, who also lives in Moorpark, said he has never exhibited any of these bizarre behaviors.
"He's kind of the opposite" of violent, the mother said. "He's more on the kind of mild-mannered side."
She said her son had learning disabilities as a youngster but was not diagnosed as having Tourette until he was 17 years old. He has held jobs at various times, including a stint at a fast-food restaurant, where he was fired for being slow. She hopes he will work again eventually.
In the meantime, the mother said, she hopes her son's new neighbors will accept him.
"I can understand they don't know him and he's kind of a big guy." But, she added, "I hope it will work out.
"It's important for him to become more independent."
Moorpark city officials plan to meet with Area Housing Authority officials soon to discuss the issue.
When the city approved the construction of Tafoya in 1984, it stipulated that the building would be occupied only by people 62 and older. But Roddick said the City Council might not have understood that federal housing regulations include the disabled and handicapped in their definition of senior citizens.
Roddick said he is worried that the elderly residents' suspicions and confusion might create an intolerable living situation for the man.
"That is my fear: they create an environment he doesn't want to live in, and an opportunity for this man to live on his own . . . in the community is going to be lost."