Duquesne Place, a subsidized housing complex in Duquesne, has had some rough years.
In January 2012 a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed, and a 14-year-old was injured. The previous year, a 17-year-old boy was shot there. Overall, there was a high level of crime.
Over the past year the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office has been working with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Duquesne City School District to boost education opportunities and build a stronger community at the complex.
Now, the district attorney’s office says the effort has paid off.
“In terms of changing things that have happened in this area, we went from some very serious issues to mostly nuisance-related types of matters,” said DA Stephen Zappala. “It’s a much different environment. It’s more like a gated community than anything else.”
A gate borders the entire complex, and the entrance is guarded by security officers who check the IDs of every person who enters. Other increased security measures include better lighting, the use of surveillance cameras and rules barring outdoor pools and cooking outdoors.
At first, these things didn’t sit well with some residents.
“When they put up that gate it was a big thing for us, like, ‘We live in a jail,’ but I see what they’re doing and it has stopped a lot of stuff, so they can keep up the good work,” said Brandi Washington, who grew up at Duquense Place and now has three small children of her own.
Jamie Lang is another parent at the complex. She said she feels safer now than when she first moved in five years ago.
“It was chaos to the point where I saw a couple of people get shot, and I just didn’t want to live around that,” Lang said. “I feel that it’s a lot safer than what it used to be. It’s to the point where I feel safe walking to my mailbox at 11 o’clock at night, rather than five years ago when I’d be afraid to come out.”
Now Lang said she feels comfortable letting her son go outside to play.
Two of Washington’s kids attended a Head Start program for pre-K kids at the Complex. That’s where AIU comes in. They run the program that serves 16 children. That’s a small chunk of the 623 kids under the age of 17 who live at Duquesne Place.
AIU also offers a home-based Head Start program for families. AIU said in the first year, children in the Head Start classroom scored at or above the anticipated growth range in all six developmental areas: cognitive, language, literacy, mathematics, physical and social-emotional.
Adults at the complex are not left out of the mix. Plans are in the works to expand learning opportunities for residents, including GED classes and workforce development services.
“Community College of Allegheny County wants to be involved with this too, teaching single moms rudimentary economics, balancing checkbooks and that type of thing, all geared toward becoming independent,” Zappala said.
He added all of those efforts have had a noticeable effect and have proven that education and community building can turn things around.
“You don’t have to arrest people to really impact crime,” Zappala said. “I think we’ve demonstrated through partnerships like this that education and pre-school learning programs are huge in changing peoples’ lives and changing people’s attitudes.”