After staffers at a Tarentum domestic violence shelter were repeatedly assaulted and threatened by residents over a period of five days in a "collective disturbance," the shelter's director, Michelle Bond, said Wednesday she had no choice but to evict all of its residents.
In what she and other domestic violence experts described as an unprecedented action, six women and seven children were escorted out of the Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center on Tuesday night after a highly charged house meeting in which two staffers were assaulted.
"The threats made were lethal in nature and with specific intent," Ms. Bond said. "It became a collective disturbance."
In her 10 years of running the Hope Center, "I have never seen anything spiral out of control so quickly. It became impossible for us to resolve the issues. It was a perfect storm of emotion," she added.
There are only three reasons a resident is ever evicted from the Hope Center -- substance use, weapons or the threat of violence -- said Ms. Bond, noting that no residents had guns or drugs. It took three hours to remove the residents, who caused $10,000 worth of damage to the facility before leaving. The damage included shattered glass, urine on the floor, broken blinds and light bulbs and a lit cigarette near a shower curtain, which caught fire.
The New Hope Center offers a 30-day emergency shelter along with transitional housing, education, legal assistance and counseling, and is still open, although not fully operational.
Ms. Bond said she expected two rooms would be occupied as of Wednesday night.
Tensions at the shelter began to build Friday, when one resident spit on and assaulted a staff member, and culminated at Tuesday's house meeting, which became so volatile that a staffer pushed a "panic button" at the center to alert Tarentum police.
Ms. Bond declined to press charges, citing the trauma that these women had already experienced, and noted that she had given all the residents a list of other shelters and bus tickets to those destinations.
Some of the residents, who had been staying at the shelter for anywhere between three days and three weeks, declined the offers of help and were sitting outside the shelter when police arrived, Tarentum police Chief Bill Vakulick said.
Chief Vakulick called a local pastor for assistance in finding places for the women to spend the night.
Greg Blythe, pastor at Abundant Joy Fellowship in Tarentum, said that by the time he got to the shelter at 9 p.m., three residents had already left, leaving four women, one of whom had four children ranging in age from 1 year to age 15.
Mr. Blythe drove the residents to the Clarion Hotel in New Kensington. However, the group created such a disturbance overnight that the manager declined to allow them to stay another night.
By Wednesday, the woman with four children had found shelter with a relative, while the other three were being assisted by the Salvation Army.
The Hope Center is well-regarded by local social service agencies, said Mr. Blythe, who called the organization "stellar," as Clarion Hotel general manager Jeff Stahl, who said he has participated in fundraisers for the shelter.
Despite recent federal and state budget cuts all shelters are experiencing, understaffing wasn't an issue in this incident, Ms. Bond said, noting that two supervisors and two advocates were present at the final house meeting, and all staffers had been previously trained in dealing with traumatized victims of violence.
But, she said, she stands by her decision.
"Certainly we're going to have egg on our face after this," Ms. Bond said, adding that if she had not acted quickly, "the story you might be writing would be much worse."
Mackenzie Carpenter: 412-263-1949; firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @MackenziePG