"What we have is a human rights issue," says Reverend Dr. Robert L. Jeffrey Sr., pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, describing his mission to provide stable transitional housing for up to 10 ex-convicts in the Central District. Jeffrey is part of a national crusade of ministers to help ex-offenders reintegrate into their communities. "The role of the church is to help redeem society—my role as minister is to open the door for those who are locked out," he says.
However, neighbors of the white two-story house located at 22nd Avenue South and East Yesler Way want to negotiate a contract for the house's operation before the facility is opened. Some don't want the house to open at all.
"I don't want felons loitering in my neighborhood—we have lots of children and seniors around," said John Slabey, who attended a 60-person meeting on March 8, during which concerned neighbors tried to hash out a Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) with the church. But an assistant city attorney, Jim Kenny, showed up to warn residents that any agreement isn't legally binding and the city won't enforce it.
"I don't see why their interests are being put above ours," said Slabey, who, along with most of the neighbors in attendance, seemed horrified that the House of Another Chance, as it is tentatively called, will be an extension of prison.
This sentiment was reflected a week prior at an open house conducted by the church.
"Are you locking them in at night?" asked a woman who wouldn't provide her name.
"I'm not going to lock them in at night," explained the proposed house manager, Madylin Dahman. "This is not a prison." Residents will have a 10:45 p.m. curfew, she added.
Reverend Jeffrey decided that he would open the house to ex-convicts when he rented it in January, before telling neighbors. Residents criticize him for failing to seek community input—even he acknowledges that—but some neighborhood concerns are reminiscent of the controversy surrounding Casa Latina, a nonprofit that provides social services to Latino immigrants, which announced its plans to move to the Central District in 2007.
Casa Latina was forced into a GNA that took five months to negotiate and included stipulations for daytime street patrols by a hired neighborhood ambassador and barred day workers from gathering on the sidewalk. A year into their move, residents' fears about increased crime and gang activity have proved unfounded, according to Casa Latina staff.
Reverend Jeffrey says fears that Another Chance won't have appropriate rules or trained staff—as well as fears that neighbors will be assaulted or robbed—are equally unfounded. Reverend Jeffrey is duplicating the Interaction Transition House (I/T House) located on Capitol Hill, which has housed ex-offenders since the 1970s. Reverend Jimmie James, who runs that program, says, "We work with people up to six months before they come out of prison in our prerelease program." The program directors screen candidates—no sex offenders, arsonists, or psychopaths—and once they accept an applicant, staff conduct one-on-one counseling, weekly support groups, dependency programs, and follow-up with residents who have transitioned to stable housing. The 8 to 10 residents at Another Chance would transition to permanent housing within a year.
"Church-based organizations are getting more involved in this transition," says Donta Harper, Department of Corrections (DOC) field administrator for King County. The I/T House, a model for many church-run programs, he says, "has had great success."
And all around, churches are some of the leading private entities putting roofs over people's heads in the Seattle area. Catholic Housing Services, for example, operates 17 transitional-housing facilities and 45 permanent-housing properties in Western Washington for low-income families, seniors, battered women, and special-needs individuals.
As for transitional-housing programs, DOC spokesman Chad Lewis stresses that they lower the chances of reoffending. "If you're homeless, you're more likely to be around drugs," says Lewis. "You're also more likely to steal because you're hungry. Without a house, the odds of committing a crime go up dramatically."
According to the DOC, 1,440 ex-felons were released to King County last year. The recidivism rate for men in Washington State was 64.6 percent in 2005, according to the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission. In contrast, the I/T House has harbored over 800 ex-offenders since opening its doors, with a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent, according to the group's 2007 newsletter.
"This is a pressing need," Reverend Jeffrey says, and one with a proven path to success. He says the success of ex-offender housing speaks louder to him than the few critics in the community. "And in the end, we're going to respond whether the community agrees with us or not."