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Information Lockdown

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When 60 East Liberty residents filed into the Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School on July 12, they hoped for answers to their questions about a proposed halfway house for ex-offenders at 5620 Rippey St.

Instead, they got a 20-minute video -- and the same vague answers they've been getting for more than a month. None of which did anything to allay local concerns, or suspicions that the halfway house is coming whether the community approves or not.

Concerns about the project have been mounting for months [see Trust Issues, June 27]. The July 12 meeting was billed as a chance for residents to learn more about the project from Ted Johnson, U.S. chief of Probation Services, and Doug Williams, CEO of Downtown-based Renewal, Inc., which will oversee the building and its tenants.

Thus far, residents have learned that the program, housed in an apartment complex seized by the federal government last year, will house about 20 ex-cons for roughly three to nine months. The cons must be crime- and drug-free, and they must hold down jobs. But on July 12, community members grew restless as the video played, extolling the benefits of transitional housing. When it ended, the barrage began.

"Basically you're just giving us lip service," shouted one female audience member.

"Our property values are going to go down," added Karl Thomas, 35. "There is no protection if this doesn't work. There is no out for us."

Playing defense against the emotional crowd, a visibly nervous Johnson pleaded with residents to "Let me put [the ex-convicts] in a positive, controlled atmosphere.

"All I'm asking is that you welcome these people home."

But residents weren't taking anything on faith. Barbara Walker, a 33-year resident of Rippey Street, wanted to know what kind of offenders would be living in the apartment. "We'd like a list," she told Johnson, who said he couldn't provide one. There would be no violent or sex offenders allowed in the building, he pledged, but residents were unimpressed. Drug dealers fall under the title of "non-violent offenders," they pointed out -- and after dealing with 5620 Rippey St.'s previous owner, convicted drug kingpin Terrance Cole, pushers are the last people they want as neighbors.

After two hours of mostly leaving residents' questions unanswered, Johnson ended the meeting. Standing outside the building afterward, he looked dejected. "I anticipated some resistance, but the anger, I don't know where that came from," he said.

"We don't know where we're going from here," Johnson said.

Some residents doubt that. Bryan Perry, 37, says he's seen evidence that the project is already underway. On June 29, Perry said he noticed contractors at the building.

"Work was being done on the inside," he said. "It's evident that they don't care to get neighborhood input."

Johnson wouldn't comment on whether the project would continue without the community's approval. But it seems clear the project is unlikely to get that approval any time soon.

"We're still at square one," said resident Ajana Camara, 66. "It's basically a done deal, and they're trying to get the community's OK after they already know what they're gonna do."

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