WILKES-BARRE — Volunteers who have been trying to help residents of the troubled Sherman Hills Apartments complex in Wilkes-Barre met Saturday to review their progress and provide a sympathetic ear to those with complaints.
The gathering originally was planned as part of a walking tour of the low-income, crime-ridden development with U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, but volunteers said they received notice Friday afternoon that Cartwright was postponing his visit.
Cartwright formed a task force to address problems at Sherman Hills last year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) threatened to withhold funding to the prior complex owner if it did not make safety and security improvements.
The complex received around $2 million in rental subsidies last year and was sold last month to Teaneck, N.J.-based Treetop Development for $15.7 million.
Daniel McCormick wandered over to the group of volunteers gathered in a parking lot Saturday to discuss his interest in reactivating a Boys and Girls Club he once operated at Sherman Hills, saying more activities are needed at the complex to keep youth constructively engaged.
McCormick has lived at Sherman Hills seven years and said he is cautiously celebrating a lack of shootings there in recent months.
“The neighborhood seems to have gotten a lot better. It’s a lot more quiet.”
But he isn’t thrilled with one of management’s security solutions — a fence erected around the complex perimeter a little over a month ago. Plans to build and staff a gatehouse at one of the entrances had been discussed but not yet implemented.
Officials indicated the fence was intended to deter unwelcome visitors from entering the complex, but McCormick said it has created a sense of separation from the surrounding neighborhood, as if residents are in prison.
“Many of us feel boxed in,” he said.
Resident Joan Bayyoud told the volunteers the new owners should have more presence and meet with residents to address safety concerns and other problems.
Bayyoud suggests community meetings, possibly through formation of a tenants association, so residents aren’t strangers. She said she and many others are grateful for government-assisted housing and willing to give back by improving the development.
“The violence is making us hibernate,” Bayyoud said. “If we get to know each other, we are more likely to walk around and have a more peaceful atmosphere.”
Six elderly residents who have lived in Sherman Hill’s eight-story, high-rise for years raised a litany of concerns Saturday before The Rev. Robert Williams Jr.’s weekly religious service. The 22-acre complex has 340 apartments in the high-rise and eight buildings.
The elderly residents said they recently witnessed an 84-year-old sitting outside the high-rise in her wheelchair cut her hand while brushing glass off herself. The shards landed on her after a man who lived elsewhere in the complex flung an ashtray at a window, they said.
They worry they’ll get high from the marijuana wafting from other apartments into the hallways and their own units. One soft-spoken woman who kept her white hair in place with a decorative headband said she didn’t know what pot smelled like until she questioned others about the frequent odor on her floor.
“It smells like a skunk,” she said as the others nodded in agreement.
One woman said she was recently leaning on her walker in the lobby waiting for a pizza delivery man so she could let him through the security doors when two young adults pushed against her and nearly knocked her to the ground with no apology.
They said the community room where they gather for services used to be open so they could get together in the evening, but management started closing the space earlier, in part because vagrants would sneak in and pass out there in the middle of the night.
There’s talk the new owners plan to spruce up the community room, but they’d rather see the money spent on a security guard for their building. They also suggest police bring in a drug-detection canine.
The senior citizens didn’t want their names printed, saying they fear retaliation from management or other complex residents.
Williams oversees Salt of the Earth Ministries in Stroudsburg but started holding weekly services at the high-rise after he stumbled on the place during the September 2011 flood. He had visited the local American Red Cross center with a vehicle full of donated supplies for flood victims but was informed the center was amply stocked. He unintentionally drove through Sherman Hills on his way back, chatted with residents and was overcome with an urge to help them.
He and other volunteers say they’re trying to serve the needs of residents instead of creating an initiative that looks good on paper but doesn’t provide tangible benefits.
“We’re trying to empower the residents. A lot of them are frightened and frustrated, and we want them to know they have value,” Williams said.
“Building trust with the residents — that’s the challenge,” said William Birch, who provides Bibles to complex residents through The Gideons International.
The Rev. Linda Sapack, Swoyersville, director of CrossWalk, a mobile, faith-based children’s outreach, has worked with children and their families at Sherman Hills for 14 years providing a weekly program of singing and games. She and other volunteers also coordinate major events, including an Easter egg hunt, carnival, hayride and Christmas party at Camp Orchard Hill in Dallas.
“What’s missing in the news are the many wonderful people who live here. The public is not seeing the big picture,” Sapack said.
Jim Payne, executive director of Camp Orchard Hill, works with Misericordia University students providing homework help to Sherman Hills residents once a week. He is setting up a week-long day camp for Sherman Hills children funded by donations and the Luzerne Foundation.
“This will expose the kids to a different environment for a week,” Payne said Saturday.
Fabian Sanchez, who has owned the Dollar Plus store adjacent to the development for about 19 months, offered the volunteers space in his store if they need a place to meet.
Sanchez embraces his new role as a mentor to Sherman Hills youth who frequent his business.
“We can break this cycle,” he said as he greeted other volunteers. “Sherman Hills is a great place. It just has maybe a handful of people who cause problems, and some don’t even live there.”