Sheldon Park residents celebrate
Friday's cloudy weather for the 25th annual Sheldon Park Community Day in Harrison provided brief glimpses of sunshine, illustrating how the event itself and other community-building programs serve as bright spots in an otherwise troubled housing development.
The Sheldon Park Apartments leadership has been touted by Allegheny County Housing Authority and township officials for its youth outreach programs and stance against drugs. Frank Aggazio, Allegheny County Housing Authority executive director, said events like community day bring neighbors closer together and instill a sense of pride that's unparalleled in the county.
Still, tensions between development residents and Harrison police are heating up as drug use grows more pervasive among more than half its residents, said Bonita Hayden, residence council president.
“We have some people living here that are into some bad things,” she said. “That's why we put on these events, to bring the community together and reach out to the youth and give them a sense of security.”
This year, youths gathered at the Lloyd D. Hayden Center where Hayden and other council members set up a moon bounce, DJ and caricature artist. The rain held off long enough for children to play three-on-three basketball or have De-Bo the Clown make them a balloon animal.
JaMarkus Prager, 5, took full advantage of the festivities. He happily spent most of the day “playing with friends in the jumpy house” and wielding a balloon sword courtesy of De-Bo.
His mother, Dawna Prager, said she and her three children join the 100 or so residents from the 192-unit development who participate in the event each year.
“It gives the kids something to do, and it gives the adults an opportunity to get outside and interact with the neighbors you wouldn't necessarily see otherwise,” she said. “We like coming down to the center.”
The Lloyd D. Hayden Center, named after Hayden's late uncle, hosts the development's council meetings and after-school programs for elementary school students. In the spirit of her uncle, Hayden said, the center is designed to keep children off the street in a safe and inclusive environment.
Hayden's uncle, known by many as “the patriarch of Sheldon,” officially inaugurated community day a quarter century ago, but his niece said he organized community events in the housing development as early as the 1960s.
“He was like everybody's father here,” she said. “He took everyone under his wing and genuinely cared about each one of these residents.”
Hayden's uncle died in 2009, but “his work and his spirit live on through Bonita,” said Mike Vogel, Allegheny County Housing Authority police chief.
Vogel and several other community leaders kicked off this year's community day with a series of brief speeches in the center.
“I think there's a stereotype associated with public housing,” he said. “Every time there's an isolated incident, people look at it like it's everybody, but I wish I would see the leadership here replicated throughout all of the county's housing developments.”
Vogel's statements were seemingly in response to a speech given by Harrison police Officer Chris Cottone. The policeman took to the podium to assure Sheldon Park residents that “the department has their best interest in mind.”
“I know there's been some concerns over recent police activity and an increase in officer encounters,” he said. “We're just trying to get to know the community and the people.”
Cottone is one of five officers to recently join the Harrison Township Police Department.
Hayden said some residents had an established rapport with the veteran police officers but have felt “harassed” by some of the new faces.
“They stop people a lot and check for identification,” she said. “People feel that it's invasive a little bit, but they're doing their job, and we appreciate what they do.”
The increase in police interaction, Hayden said, probably is a result of increased drug use in recent years.
“I'd say more than half the community is on drugs,” she said. “A lot of it is weed. Some of it is heroin. We have these programs in place to keep kids safe, but they can't get here sometimes because their parents can't wake up to take them.”
Aggazio said the increased drug use isn't unique to Sheldon Park Apartments but is indicative of a broader national trend. The housing authority executive director credits Hayden with keeping the problem at bay, which he says could be much worse.
“You don't see things like this often in other developments,” he said of the dozens of children partaking in community day. “Bonita is a great leader. Lloyd would be very proud.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.