Milagros Mercado is concerned about the mix of people who will descend on her neighborhood for services and resources as mayor Jose “Joey” Torres seeks to locate a prisoner reentry program next door to her home on Montgomery Street where she has been living for almost two decades.
“I’m very concerned,” said Mercado, palpable uneasiness in her voice. “I gotta worry for the young kids.”
She called the mayor’s office to express her grievance on Thursday morning. Mercado said before she had a chance to fully communicate her concerns, Torres forcefully told her she is powerless to prevent the location of the reentry program in her neighborhood.
“He hung up on me,” said Mercado, 45, a grandmother of three.
Torres did not return a call for comment. A reporter knocked on Torres’ home on Arlington Avenue. Several cars were parked at the residence. No answer at the door on Thursday afternoon.
Mercado said she worries about the people who will visit her already volatile neighborhood for various services the program is looking to offer to ex-prisoners to better reintegrate them into the community.
“We don’t need this here,” added another neighbor Guillermo Camacho, 67, who has been living on Montgomery Street for more than a decade. “This area is already overtaken by drug dealers and addicts.”
Camacho said the program will attract ex-convicts who may linger in the neighborhood and some may even utilize the park that sits across the street from 147 Montgomery Street where the mayor intends to locate his program.
Mercado said her three grandchildren go to the park. “I don’t think it’s good for the safety of the neighborhood. They might come to the neighborhood afterwards,” said Mercado.
“You don’t know what they might do when they come here,” added Willie Lewis, 69, who has been living on the street for 47 years.
Torres has said the reentry program will serve Passaic County residents coming out of the county jail. The city has appropriated $180,000 in federal funding for the reentry program dubbed the “Center of Hope.”
The program is an expansion of what many have called a successful reentry program run by former governor James McGreevey out of Jersey City called Martin’s Place. $3.5 million has been earmarked to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation for the expansion of McGreevey’s program to Paterson and other municipalities, according to news reports.
What has neighbors incensed is that the city did not inform residents who live near the church where the program will be situated. “At least let the neighbors know,” said Manny Mercado, 50, Milagros Mercado’s husband. “They are just doing whatever without asking.”
The Mercados are also worried their property value will dip further below the already low home values of the Wrigley Park section where there have been shootings and drug dealing is common.
I thought it was the church doing work, said Lewis. The city’s public works employees, who may be working overtime, have been rehabbing the church owned property for about two weeks.
Torres’ administration has told the state in its request for a massive $38.4 million transitional aid package that the city ostensibly has imposed an overtime freeze on non-essential employees.
The city has also stationed a police officer at the location since Sunday afternoon, according to neighborhood residents. At times, two police officers were stationed outside the location, according to witnesses. The city has experienced a spike in gun violence towards the end of December and sought resources from the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office and the New Jersey State Police.
Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman, said some residents thought it was halfway house. Indeed, few have said they thought it was a halfway house. She said some thought it was an overnight program and people will be living there.
“Somebody is putting fear in them badly,” said Cotton. She said the program is much needed in the crime plagued city to give those coming out of prison a “second chance.”
“We need to help them get a fresh start in life then maybe we can keep them off the streets,” said Cotton. “They want to live a productive life.”
Even when told it’s not a halfway house, but a reentry program that will be in their midst, the neighbors were loath to allow it on their street. One resident, who did not want to give his name, said Torres should place the program on Arlington Avenue.
“We don’t need that here,” said Lewis. “We already got it bad enough here.”