Homewood Bound: After Drug War Ravaged A Community, Some Who Went To Prison See Chance To Rebuild

Jul 16, 2019

A house stands quietly on Homewood’s Monticello Street. All the windows are boarded up. Shingles pop off the eaves. And if you look closely, you can see graffiti beneath a fading layer of white paint. The graffitti is blue, the signature color of the Crips gang.

Amber Sloan joined the gang in high school and remembers what the house was like 30 years ago.

Amber Sloan stands next to a corner store in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood. “The reason why I come back here is ‘cause this is a community that everybody [forgets] about,” Sloan says. She organizes community events each year, including a backpack drive ahead of the first day of school.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“This was just like a regular back porch,” she said, “and we used to sit up there when it rained and sold drugs and sit on the steps.”

Sloan said her mother struggled with mental illness, and that her family was so poor she had to steal food to eat. No one at home intervened when she started to sell drugs.

“I was just doing it because it was a struggle growing up,” Sloan said. “And my goal was to hustle until I was able to get my money together for when I went to college.”

Sloan was arrested several times shortly after graduating from Homewood’s Westinghouse High. She ultimately served 15 years in federal prison for carrying a gun as a convicted felon with a substantial record.

Sloan’s story is familiar to Dave Jenkins, who owns The Dream BBQ restaurant in Homewood. Jenkins actually made it to college, but sold drugs to pay for it.

A house on Monticello Street is boarded up and has become overgrown with weeds. On the side of the building is graffiti related to the gang activity that once ruled the neighborhood.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“I had a scholarship,” he said. “But I was hustling coming home to have money to go back to school.”

Jenkins went to prison for drug offenses in his twenties and said he didn’t know any other way. His father got sick when he was young, and with his mother working multiple jobs, Jenkins was left to his own devices.

“You know, the streets will teach you. You going to learn one way or the other,” the restaurant owner said.

‘You never knew what was going to happen’

Elsewhere in Homewood, resident Zinna Scott said such stories were common in the 1980s and 90s. Scott bought a house in the neighborhood in 1976, partly because she thought her kids would be safe.

But drugs crept into the community just a few years later.

“During that time period, it was scary,” Scott remembered. “The two bars down the street that were nuisance bars – you never knew what was going to happen: shootings, people driving up the street running into cars, trying to get away from something. It was crazy.”

Scott was especially concerned because her children were teenagers. Many kids their age were dealing and using drugs.

Zinna Scott sits in her home in Pittsburgh's Homewood community. Scott is involved with Operation Better Block, an organization created to help fight blight and disinvestment in Pittsburgh's Homewood community.
Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA

Scott said she would chase the dealers away from in front of her house.

“This was where I lived. And this just couldn't happen here,” Scott said. “But it was a fight."

Scott said it angered her that her neighbors did not take more responsibility for helping to police their own community. But she said she herself was arrested after trying to break up a fight on her sidewalk between three undercover officers and a drug dealer.

Pittsburgh police chaplain and Homewood native John Welch said tensions between police and the community were high during what was called the War on Drugs. Welch said that for decades, policymakers believed they were targeting the root cause of crime and neighborhood decline.

“They knew that there was violence. They knew the violence was connected to drugs. They wanted safe communities. They wanted safe streets,” Welch said.

John Welch is a Pittsburgh Police Chaplain and Dean of Students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

But he added that substance use did not decline. Meanwhile, African Americans were more likely than whites to be arrested for drug offenses even though both groups use drugs at similar rates.

“It’s unfortunate,” Welch said, “The powers that be thought it best to create a war when one didn't need to exist.”

‘A community that everybody forgets about’

The tone of policing in Homewood is different today.

At a recent open house at the local police station, a parking lot filled with families while popular songs blasted from large speakers. Kids took turns blowing the siren of a police car, and trying to plunge officers into a dunk tank.

A child barely misses the mark at a dunk tank that soaked Pittsburgh Police officers at the annual Zone 5 Open House on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh police commander Jason Lando led the station for about five years before transferring to a new unit last week. He would not discuss the tactics of his predecessors, but said his approach was to reach out to residents.

“Over the past few years, I’ve seen a significant shift in the culture, where officers have become much more compassionate and community-oriented,” Lando said.

Pittsburgh Police Zone 5 Commander Jason Lando speaks at the annual Open House on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Lando focused much of his efforts on engaging youth, and he said officers do what they can to keep residents out of jail, and link them to whatever services they might need. And he said people who have been incarcerated help, too, by mentoring children they see going down the wrong path.

“They contributed to some of the crime and the violence in Homewood,” Lando said of formerly incarcerated people, “and when they got out of jail, they made a commitment to come back and make up for it."

One of those people is Amber Sloan. She often visits with students at Homewood’s Westinghouse High School and organizes an annual community day and other events.

“The reason why I come back here is ‘cause this is a community that everybody [forgets] about,” Sloan said.

Families gather and play games like Go Fish! and Bingo! at a community day organized by Amber Sloan on August 25, 2018. Sloan collects donations from local groups at such events and gives out backpacks ahead of each new school year.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

‘Drugs took our youth in many ways’

Many people freed from prison do not return to the communities where they grew up, according to University of Pittsburgh professor and prison reentry expert Richard Garland.

Garland himself never went back home to Philadelphia after being imprisoned for more than 12 years for a string of offenses. He said it can be hard to shake an old reputation: Those who come back can be targeted by rivals from their drug dealing days, or by the victims of their crimes.

Richard Garland is an assistant professor of public health practice at the University of Pittsburgh. He reviews all homicides in Allegheny County and runs outreach programs aimed at preventing crime and violence.

“Some people don't forget,” Garland said. “There are barriers and there are challenges in the community that we don't even realize that these men and women face.”

Garland said reentrants often lose hope if they are not accepted by the community, or can't get a job.

“I mean the self-esteem is something that I always talk to guys about: ‘You're not a second class citizen. Okay, that’s behind you.’ But you know, it's hard,” he said.

Zinna Scott hopes Homewood will grow beyond its past, too.

Crime in the neighborhood has dropped since the 1990s, and residents in Homewood say they feel safer today. Scott would like to see people who grew up wanting to leave the neighborhood return to it.

“What I really saw the most of is the kids that didn't get involved [in drugs], got a chance to go away to school or service, and they didn't come back,” the longtime Homewood resident said. “So drugs took our youth in many ways.”

From 2000 to 2010 alone, Homewood’s population dropped by 30 percent. Scott believes formerly incarcerated people could help to reverse that.

“It would be nice if our young men and women coming out of prison could get jobs in the community to help revitalize the community,” she said.

This story is Part 2 of a series exploring how Homewood, and residents who have spent time behind bars, are trying to rebuild after the War on Drugs.

Adam Tunnard contributed to this report.