By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Exactly one week ago, Pittsburgh Current published a story by writer Brittany Hailer about people of color being mistreated in their own neighborhoods, “Would you be my Neighbor?”
In that piece was the sad and frustrating story of Thomas Drake, a disabled veteran who served during the Vietnam War. He has lived in his house for years. The home and its yard are points of pride for him.
However, for the past three years, Drake, the only black resident on the Churchill street where he lives, has been continuously harassed by a white neighbor who has made countless frivolous calls to the police about Drake and hurled racial epithets at Drake and his family. But a lot has happened since Hailer’s first story was published. Both good and bad.
Felicity Williams, ESQ., a racial and economic justice advocate contacted Hailer to get contact information for Drake because she wanted to help improve his situation.
“When I read the article, I was moved by the volume of police calls that had been made against Mr. Drake,” Williams says. “He’s the only black resident on the street, he gets along with everyone else, but nobody stands up for him.
“It was important for me that he knew that he wasn’t alone. I wanted to do something for this man.”
Williams called Drake and talked about what she and other activists could do to help him. At one point there was talk of protesting in the neighborhood on Mr. Drake’s behalf and through the community of Churchill. But Drake didn’t want that. He didn’t want the situation to escalate, he just wanted some peace.
Ultimately, it was decided to start a crowd-funding campaign on gofundme.com for several items (www.tinyurl.com/drakefundraiser). First, Drake has long had playground equipment in his yard for all of the neighborhood kids to play on. The equipment, as well as Mr. Drake’s boat in his yard, have been damaged, and there’s no proof of how it happened. So, the $5,000 being sought will go toward new play equipment, two mobile basketball hoops and security cameras to monitor the outside of Drake’s home.
“It’s very comforting that so many people want to help me and help the kids,” Drake said Tuesday morning. “They’ve offered to help in so many ways, including protests. I initially said I didn’t want to do all that. I just wanted him to leave me alone. But then I got the letter and if they want to protest on my behalf, I’m glad to have them.
“I’m so thankful that the story put light on the issue and people have responded to the story. But I still haven’t gotten the peace that I hoped for.”
Drake says Churchill Police came and talked to Drake and said they wouldn’t allow the neighbor to use them as a way to get to Drake. Then late last week, Drake got a letter from the Allegheny County Health Department that said there was a complaint from a neighbor that Drake’s house was overgrown with weeds and crawling with rats. The complaints in the letter are not true and Pittsburgh Current can verify that because reporters have seen Drake’s property.
“He can’t use the Churchill Police against Mr. Drake anymore,” Williams said. “So, now he’s trying to use the health department.”
Unfortunately, the county health department’s complaint and notification system doesn’t include department verification of the complaint before a letter is sent. Lori Horowitz, Housing and Community Environment Program Manager, of the ACHC, says the letter is sent upon receipt of the complaint and demands action within 30 days. At the end of that time, the person who made the complaint is contacted and asked if the problem has been resolved. Horowitz says the current system allows the property owner to “disregard if the alleged conditions do not exist.”
In the past, devices like health departments and building and zoning inspectors can be used as an easy way to escalate a dispute between neighbors. Horowitz says the health department understands that, “however, we must service complaints that we receive, and we communicate as much as possible with the complainants. To my knowledge, it has never gotten to the point where we refused to take a complaint because it has been identified as a neighbor dispute.”
That means the next steps in this matter for Drake and his allies could be demonstrations. It wasn’t what Drake wanted but he’s starting to see few options. “All I wanted was for this man to leave me alone. But he hasn’t left me alone. So, if they want to protest as a way to get the point across, I won’t stand in their way.”