Harlem Anti-Violence Worker, Family Face NYCHA Eviction Because of His Past
HARLEM — When word came at 4 a.m. recently that a 25-year-old man had been shot at 148th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, Dedric "Beloved" Hammond got dressed and left his mother's apartment at the St. Nicholas Houses to meet the victim and his family at Harlem Hospital.
If it had been a decade earlier, Hammond, 34 — who was then known on the streets of Harlem as "Bad News" — might have been the victim or even the shooter in the incident.
But after getting shot in the stomach and back on two separate occasions and serving eight years in prison for robbery and weapons possession, Hammond turned his life around and now works as a "violence interrupter" for a program called Operation SNUG, which seeks to stop violence and shootings before they happen.
Despite his efforts to help the community he once helped destroy, Hammond's violent past is still haunting him. The New York City Housing Authority has obtained an order to evict Hammond's mother, Shirley Betts, from the three-bedroom apartment she shares with him and her grandchildren at St. Nicholas Houses, where she has lived for 23 years.
Ironically, NYCHA has begun to implement Operation SNUG at select housing developments to reduce gang and gun violence using a $110,000 grant from the New York Community Trust, NYCHA Chairman John Rhea said during testimony before the City Council in August, according to prepared remarks.
"It is our hope that these efforts will alleviate acts of violence in our communities," read Rhea's statement.
Under federal rules, individuals convicted of producing methamphetamine and sex offenders with lifetime registration requirements are barred from living in public housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
NYCHA has broad discretion to forbid those with criminal convictions from living in its properties. Depending on the severity of tenants' crimes, NYCHA, after an arduous hearing process, can enforce exclusions from living in public housing that can run several years or include permanent bans.
Glenn Martin, vice president of public affairs for the Fortune Society, which helps ex-offenders re-enter society and promotes alternatives to incarceration, said NYCHA's standards are too "stringent."
"What's happening in NYCHA is they have gone overboard in their restrictions for people with criminal records," he said. "You can be barred two years for minor convictions."
In order to keep her home, Betts signed an agreement in 2005 promising that she would not allow Hammond or another son who has felony gun convictions to ever enter her apartment.
The agreement said that she would also be on probation for two years. Betts, 65, said she didn't understand that the agreement she signed excluded her children forever and thought they would be allowed to return after her two-year probation.
Betts appealed the decision, saying she didn't have legal representation and that NYCHA did not advise her of her right to have legal counsel. A civil court judge rejected that argument.
In March, NYCHA obtained an eviction order to force Betts to vacate the apartment by the end of September. NYCHA officials have told her she will have to leave the apartment by Nov. 16.
Betts, whose husband died in November of 2010, survives on about $1,000 per month in Social Security benefits and pays $440 per month in rent. She plans to put her furniture in storage and enter the shelter system.
"We have nowhere else to go," she said.
Betts said she’s stunned that NYCHA wouldn’t reconsider, given how Hammond has turned his life around and is now helping his community.
"It goes with the territory of being a black man. When they do a crime, it affects them for the rest of their life, regardless of what they do afterward," said Betts. "When you have someone trying to do right, they still get slapped in the face."
Hammond said he, too, is in shock over the eviction notice that arrived in the mail.
"It's beyond messed up — it’s shameful and hurtful," he said. "I am not living that lifestyle anymore. It's been seven or eight years."
NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Stainback declined to comment specifically on Betts' case, citing pending litigation, but issued a statement.
"Every case is decided based on the facts. If a family member’s action presents a danger to the health and safety of other tenants, the case is presented to an impartial hearing officer for a determination on the tenancy," she said.
"Residents do have the opportunity to appeal their status after a certain amount of time. NYCHA maintains ongoing efforts to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers in public housing by allowing for the peaceful and safe use of our facilities," she added.
Sebastian Solomon, a policy associate with the Legal Action Center, said Betts' situation is not uncommon.
"It's a very common strategy by NYCHA to tell people you can never have that person come here again or we will evict your whole family," he said. "We understand NYCHA's concern to protect its tenants, but having such broad policies that make people homeless only increases recidivism."
Advocates for men and women returning from prison said housing is often one of the most difficult issues facing those re-entering society. A 2011 study from the Pew Center on the States found that 43 percent of those released from prison will return in three years after a parole violation or after committing another crime.
Stable housing, most often with a family member, allows those coming home from prison to focus on the issues that will keep them from returning to prison, advocates said.
"Without housing stability, all of the other services we provide such as drug and alcohol counseling, employment counseling and mental health services are for naught," said the Fortune Society's Martin. "They can't focus on those things if they are worried about where they are going to live."
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, one-time head of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, sent a letter to public housing officials in June 2011 urging them to use their "broad discretion" to set admission policies regarding those with criminal convictions that recognized the "importance of second chances."
NYCHA is also about to begin a trial family-reunification program that would allow some people with criminal convictions to live with their families in public housing.
But for many families, that is not an immediate solution, Martin said.
Iesha Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources, a group dedicated to stopping violence, has served as a mentor to Hammond. Evicting Betts and Hammond would send the wrong message, Sekou said.
" 'Beloved’ is out there with people who shoot and could easily be shot and have shown violent behavior. The people from city housing would not be willing to put themselves in that situation," she said.
"He has restored his life, he is working a job, he is able to help his mother, and he is a productive and viable member of the community. What more can he do to show he has changed his life?"
The policy of excluding those convicted of crimes is also not working, Sekou added.
"Crime is rampant in public housing, and this policy is not stopping it," she said. "We have to look at policies that help support families trying to help people coming home from prison."
If anything, Hammond said his presence at St. Nicholas Houses, located between 127th to 131st streets, from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to Frederick Douglass Boulevard, has helped deter many violent incidents at the development.
Using the training he has received from Operation SNUG, Hammond leverages his past to get the attention of kids heading for trouble and points them away from the path he was once on.
Operation SNUG is modeled after the successful Ceasefire Chicago initiative. It covers a 72-block zone from 127th to 145th streets between Lenox and St. Nicholas avenues. Despite funding uncertainty, the men and women in the group have helped with hundreds of mediations. The program is also being considered for use in East Harlem.
Because of his previous reputation, Hammond is well-known and respected among the young people anti-violence workers are trying to keep from killing someone or being killed, Sekou said.
"If I move, I won't be able to do the work I'm doing here," Hammond said from his mother's living room one afternoon. His plan was always to re-establish himself and work toward earning enough to buy a home for his family, he explained.
Martin said Hammond should now be considered a valuable asset against crime.
"People who come back from prison often want to be assets to their community, but they run into all these roadblocks," he said. "This is an example of a policy that will totally destabilize him."