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August 14, 2005
A Welcome Mat Withdrawn

by Jake Mooney
When renovation started on the vacant old building across Stuyvesant Avenue from Junior High School 57 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, its neighbors on Van Buren Street were excited about the possibilities. It could be a medical office, as rumor had it, or some other kind of service to the community, or even clean new apartments or condominiums.

The reality, some residents say, came as an unpleasant surprise: The Doe Fund, a nonprofit group that runs housing and training programs for homeless people, had signed a five-year lease on the building, where it plans to establish a halfway house for 45 homeless parolees from state prison.

David Grinage, a retired city police sergeant who is president of the 300 Van Buren Street Block Association, said neighbors were not happy. In June and July, they conducted a leafleting and letter-writing campaign, and on Aug. 1, 400 people attended a meeting about the plan at the nearby Antioch Baptist Church.

The problem, said Mr. Grinage, sitting in the neatly landscaped back garden of his brownstone, is the building's proximity to the school.

"These children, junior high school, they're very impressionable," he said. "They don't need this in front of them, last thing they see going into the school, first thing they see coming out of the school." He added, "I believe it robs them of their innocence."

The Doe Fund says that graduates of its programs have recidivism rates far lower than the rate for parolees in Brooklyn as a whole - 41 percent within three years. But Mr. Grinage, a trim 50-year-old with two children, 8 and 11, is skeptical. "All you need is one incident in your community, one incident with the children, to ruin not just a family but the whole community," he said.

Isabel McDevitt, the director of community affairs for the Doe Fund, pointed to the program's rigor, calling it an asset to the neighborhood. Participants work 35 hours a week, are subject to frequent random tests for drugs and alcohol, and go through an elaborate screening that filters out sex offenders. Once they are at the site, which is scheduled to open in late September or early October, they will be under 24-hour guard, with six more staff members living on the premises.

Ms. McDevitt said many of the building's future residents were from the neighborhood, and would otherwise have nowhere else to go. "We provide structure and supervision and access to real work opportunities that otherwise they wouldn't find in a shelter or on the street," she said.

"This building is now going to be a beautifully restored, very attractive, positive place for the kids to see," Ms McDevitt continued. "I find it hard to believe that someone who's working hard, giving back to their family, doing the right thing, is a bad role model."

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