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Alle-Kiski HOPE Center director defends evictions

Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
With a mound of former residents' personal items awaiting pickup in the background, Alle-Kiski Area HOPE Center Executive Director Michelle Bond on Wednesday, April 4, 2013, talks about Tuesday's eviction of residents and their children from the emergency shelter in Tarentum.

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Alle-Kiski Area HOPE Center

The Tarentum-based center assists victims of domestic violence in the Alle-Kiski Valley portions of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

The non-profit HOPE Center organization is 34 years old. Its emergency shelter has been operating for 23 years.

The emergency shelter has 23 beds divided among seven family rooms. Executive Director Michelle Bond said the shelter has operated at or near capacity for the past four years.

The 24-hour emergency hot line is 888-299-4673. The shelter can be reached at 724-224-1100 or hopecenter@akhopecenter.org

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Thursday, April 4, 2013, 12:36 a.m.
 

Describing the removal of six women and seven children from its shelter as the worst day in the HOPE Center's 34-year history, Executive Director Michelle Bond was making plans to admit more residents on Wednesday.

The women were ordered to leave Tuesday evening, according to Bond, after some of them assaulted each other and threatened the staff of the facility, which provides victims of domestic violence emergency shelter.

Bond said that as they prepared to leave, some of the women intentionally dumped trash and left strewn food — and urine — in six of the shelter's bedrooms.

“They took anything that was not affixed to a wall,” she said. “They broke lamps, smashed light bulbs, took all of the bedding, broke the hanging vertical blinds, smashed a donated table and put holes in the walls where they opened the doors with such force.”

Bond estimates damages at $10,000.

The incidents had been ongoing since Friday, according to Bond — a “perfect storm” of personality conflicts among the women. “There was actually a brawl over the Easter gifts given to them,” Bond said. “One lady called it ‘crap' and threw the Easter basket back at the advocate (staff worker).”

If the residents would not have been told to leave, Bond believes the violence would have escalated.

“Our job is not to be a referee but to provide safety,” she said.

Not pressing charges

Still, the center staff declined to press charges.

There were alleged assaults on staff Friday and Tuesday evening, according to Tarentum police Chief William Vakulick.

“There isn't much we can do,” he said.

On Friday, there was a report of a confrontation between a resident and staff, he said.

“We determined that no crime was committed but that staff wanted us to throw out the individual and three children,” Vakulick said. “We said that we don't evict people. Go see the magistrate.”

On Tuesday evening, Tarentum police responded to a burglar alarm at the center around 8 p.m.

“When we got there, residents had 95 percent of their property outside,” Vakulick said. “The staff said they were assaulted by one resident. Staff would not tell us their name.”

Police and Tarentum Mayor Carl Magnetta on Tuesday night contacted local churches and the Salvation Army to find shelter for the women and children.

“The women and the children were all on the street, and we didn't want the children on the street,” the chief said. “We did what we could get some help for the night, it being a cold night.”

Bond said that women were given the option to stay indoors to make phone calls to find another place to stay. She said they were offered bus passes.

“The adults made choices to remove their belongings outside of the building,” Bond said.

On Wednesday, a shelter hallway was filled with plastic bags of clothes, stuffed animals and other items that belonged to the women and children who left. The shelter will hold the items for the women to pick up when they are settled into new homes, Bond said.

Mayor: Poorly handled

Police were calling in an effort to find places for the women.

“I don't know who was right or who was wrong,” Magnetta said, “but it was terrible the way it was handled.

“The women had blankets wrapped around them. The kids were freezing, and we had them in the back of the police cars.”

Capt. Rickie Armour, with the Allegheny Valley Corps of the Salvation Army, said his Brackenridge-based center fed three women and one child and found lodging for them in the Swissvale area.

The Rev. Greg Blythe, pastor of the Abundant Joy Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Tarentum, took the remaining three women and five children from the shelter via a church van late Tuesday to a hotel.

“My main concern was for the kids,” Blythe said. “There was a 1-year-old.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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