A tall man with a suitcase walked out of 5231 Centre Ave. yesterday, lit a cigarette and said he was leaving the home for criminals with mental illnesses -- despite the fact that he'd soon be the subject of an arrest warrant and be put in jail. He explained that he wanted to smoke over the holiday, and wasn't allowed to do so inside.
The program he was leaving, known as CROMISA, or Community Re-integration of Offenders with Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorder, is described in Allegheny County literature as a place for men with mental illness and substance abuse problems who are on probation or parole.
But when the owner, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, filed papers with the city in September, it characterized the 7,000-square-foot building as "assisted living," making no mention of the criminal backgrounds of those being assisted.
Now groups representing Shadyside, Friendship and the Baum-Centre corridor are upset they didn't get a say before the facility opened last month. They're alleging UPMC misrepresented the facility to dodge public scrutiny, and the city may have looked the other way.
They have filed a protest appeal of the city zoning administrator's approval, and are planning to air concerns at a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment next Thursday.
Some are worried about having a concentration of convicted criminals in an area filled with homes, hospitals, restaurants and businesses. Others resent what they view as a circumvention of neighborhood input.
"I don't think many of us are denying the fact that a facility like that is needed," said Lenore Williams of the Baum-Centre Initiative, which monitors development of the medical-commercial-residential area. "It's just that none of us were asked."
"There was supposed to be due process, and it does not look like there was due process," said John Barlow, zoning chairman of the Shadyside Action Coalition. "We think that if it was going to go in, it needed public input."
The modest white building, across from UPMC Shadyside, used to be temporary housing for handicapped children, according to city permits.
When UPMC decided to change the focus of the building, a representative of the health care system told the Baum-Centre Initiative "that it was going to be changed from a children's to an adult rehabilitation center," said Ms. Williams. "That basically implied senior citizens. That's what I thought."
The Post-Gazette obtained the name of one resident, age 35, and a check of court records indicates he was sent there by Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola upon his guilty plea for trying to steal a car radio. Police reports state that he admitted upon arrest to having "a bad crack habit" and was living in "a halfway house." He was given a 30-month sentence at CROMISA, plus $170 in restitution.
That resident has been charged with scores of crimes in 15 other court cases since 1999, mostly for thefts from motor vehicles, but also for other thefts, criminal mischief and receiving stolen property. He always pleaded guilty.
A Post-Gazette reporter who was buzzed into the 17-bed facility yesterday was then promptly ushered out and referred to UPMC, where officials refused to provide details of the building's use. Residents appeared to be allowed to come and go.
CROMISA is advertised by the county Department of Human Services as a "voluntary" program that includes job training, recovery meetings, family therapy and other services for men on probation or parole.
"It really is akin to a halfway house and should be considered a custodial care facility" under the zoning code, said Mr. Barlow. That's the classification for places that shelter people put in protective housing by a court. The code describes assisted living, by contrast, as a place for "convalescents or chronically ill persons."
Zoning officials can approve assisted living facilities in neighborhood commercial areas with a stroke of a pen. To put a custodial care facility in the same area, though, requires public hearings and a City Council vote.
"It gets scrutiny that apparently UPMC didn't want," said Mr. Barlow.
UPMC provided only a brief e-mailed response to questions.
"This is an assisted living facility for the accommodation of the chronically ill," wrote Frank Raczkiewicz, acting director of media relations. "We have all the necessary permits and we are in compliance with all city zoning regulations."
Susan Tymoczko, the city's acting zoning administrator, has e-mailed to other officials that she believes "the use qualifies under assisted living" because residents "are not required to be in the program as a condition of their probation." She added that UPMC is trying to find another location for the program.
Rich Lord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.