Anger at ‘open prison’ in centre of the town

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Angry residents in Edward Street may seek a judicial review to stop their area “being turned into a virtual open prison” with plans for a replacement ex-offenders’ centre recently approved.

The borough council has given the green light to the £500,000 plan by the Simon Community - it currently houses ex-offenders at number 21, beside the PSNI station.

A spokesperson for the residents said, ”We’ve been told little since the start. We believe that the new building will mean 15 individual rooms, virtually doubling the available accommodation. We don’t know what type of ex-offenders are being accommodated.

“We don’t know what arrangements are being made to decant the residents from Edward Street during the contract. We were never originally informed when the building, which used to be for homeless, was turned into accommodating ex-offenders. The whole thing has been cloaked in secrecy from the start.”

They added that there is a nursery unit in the nearby Methodist Wesley Hall, and there were various youth groups at Thomas Street Methodist Church and at the Elim Church. “Residents have been frightened by various incidents by residents, and frankly we believe the whole set-up is not fit for purpose. And it’s in the wrong place. There is a virtual open prison being created in the centre of Portadown.”

A spokesman for Thomas Street Methodist Church said they had real concerns over the proximity of their various facilities, “at the same time offering counselling to residents of the hostel, which is our Christian duty”.

The objecting Edward Street group had turned to local council representatives for help – but this is the same ABC Council which finally passed the plan last month. “We feel they led us up the garden path,” said the spokesperson.

He added, “The facility is totally unsuited to the centre of a town. The original Edward Street hostel was housed at number 21. It served the homeless for 20-plus years and never drew a single objection from us. It included all sorts of people affected by homelessness, but then it was changed, almost by sleight of hand.

“Now it’s being replaced and enlarged, and this is a step too far. We cannot accept it, and we will oppose the Simon Community as much as we can.”

He added, “For some reason or other our letter of objection was censored by the planners, with all reference to ex-offenders being blacked out – the sort of thing that happens in a totalitarian state.”

A statement from the Simon Community pointed out, “The premises were developed as a facility to accommodate 15 people who find themselves homeless. Numbers are reduced to nine people on a temporary basis to allow for this refurbishment. The upgraded building will see no more than 15 people accommodated at any one time. This represents no increase in numbers since the hostel was founded in 1981.

“The approved planning application will help create an acceptable standard of accommodation for the people who are temporarily accommodated in the building.

“Over the past year Simon Community and our partner organisations have participated in extensive discussions with residents, community representatives, councillors and politicians and will continue this community engagement.”