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Theater of the Oppressed youth troupe at the Red Hook Community Justice Center on March 19, 2019. From the number of people streaming into the Red Hook Community Justice Center last Tuesday afternoon, no one would have guessed that court wasn’t even in session. In one room, a circle of teens defined what being a good citizen meant to them. Down the hall, a troupe of young actors silently acted out scenes of conflict drawn from their own experiences. In the lobby, area residents and officers gathered before the 76th Precinct Build the Block meeting.
The variety of programs held at the RHCJC grew out of nearly two decades of work to reduce crime and incarceration by addressing community needs. RHCJC Project Director Amanda Berman says that money will help sustain and expand the center’s many programs, which include social services like job training and GED classes, a Housing Resource Center for tenants of the nearby Red Hook Houses, and youth activities. Historically, that didn’t exist, so we’re trying to model how a court can play an engaging, productive, transformative role in a community. The approach is visible in the courtroom, where Judge Alex Calabrese has presided since day one. Last Tuesday, he saw a defendant who was re-arrested on suspicion of drug possession two months after beginning counseling. Although the prosecutor requested bail, Judge Calabrese agreed to release the man with mandatory substance abuse treatment and testing.
He encouraged the man and pointed out that his fianceé had spent all day waiting for him to appear. After his ruling, the judge called the man up to the bench and they spoke for several minutes — something defense attorneys in most courts would never allow. What’s going to keep you on the right path? They feel they can trust this place because the people working here are the people who live next door. One of those people is Marissa Williams, a Housing Resource Specialist at the RHCJC who did Americorps before being hired full-time two years ago.
A resident of the Red Hook Houses herself, Williams said neighbors often stop her in a store or on the street to ask for help. Often, that means instructing a tenant to document the problem religiously and initiate a claim against NYCHA. When tenants and agency representatives face off in housing court, Williams keeps a close eye on both parties. She can sense when a breakdown in communication or a perceived slight threatens to derail the process, and she works to soothe tenants by serving as a go-between. I play mediator, being that they know me. Half the time I just get their file and we go directly to the judge so they don’t have to talk to if they don’t want to talk to them. The demand for housing assistance has grown quickly in recent years.
From 2016 to 2018, both the number of households served annually and the number of housing court cases initiated by tenants nearly doubled. Berman says she is exploring growing the Housing Resource Center staff to keep pace, but needs to ensure any new position can be sustained in the long-term. Officer Vegnel Jovin from the 76th precinct. By partnering with another Americorps site, the RHCJC has expanded peacemaking circles to nearby South Brooklyn High School, a transfer campus for students who’ve struggled in other settings.EnableInternalCSP_request