House of Hope
By Mark Wineka
Salisbury High School Principal Dr. Windsor Eagle submitted a letter of support Thursday for the proposed House of Hope at 730 S. Ellis St., which would operate about a block from the school.
The Governor’s Crime Commission has awarded House of Hope a two-year, $245,000 grant to provide a group care facility for just released prisoners looking to make the transition back into society.
But many residents and property owners near the proposed facility, which would operate out of an existing two-story house, oppose its location in what they consider a neighborhood already under duress.
They also have questioned the wisdom of opening such a program near the high school.
A four-person Salisbury Planning Board committee continued gathering evidence Thursday to take back to the full board next Tuesday.
The Planning Board will make a recommendation to Salisbury City Council on a special-use permit, which the group care facility requires in its Urban Residential 12 zoning.
House of Hope wants to house up to eight former prisoners at a time, all men 21 to 45 years old. The program would help the men find jobs and permanent housing with a case management system.
The concept is similar to the Exodus House in Hickory and the Higher Level Missions home in Kannapolis.
The Governor’s Crime Commission awarded the grant to Westside Community Foundation, which is connected to Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church. The church owns the house in question.
The Rev. Clary Phelps, pastor of the church, also chairs the Westside Community Foundation board.
Eagle, the Salisbury High principal, said in his letter the House of Hope “will provide a valuable avenue of transition back into society for the men that are selected to enter the program.”
“I wholeheartedly support the concept,” Eagle continued, “that when incarcerated individuals are released, they need the basic essentials of existence plus structure as they assimilate back into their daily existence in the world outside of prison.”
Eagle said he spoke on behalf of himself and not Salisbury High or the Rowan-Salisbury School System. He noted, however, that Salisbury High and the church have “a long history of cooperation and mutual respect.”
“I commend the church and its patrons for undertaking this endeavor, which is not for profit but for the benefit of a population that may otherwise not be successful in their efforts to survive in the world, as we know it today.”
At the committee meeting, Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm also endorsed the goal of transitional re-entry into society and stressed that House of Hope was not a program trying to get people out of prison early.
If that was the case, he would oppose it, Wilhelm said.
But the Police Department does not have the role of saying if a specific location is good or bad, the chief emphasized.
“I’m going to provide the same service wherever it goes,” Wilhelm told the committee.
He also presented crime statistics for the area within a 200-yard radius of the house from May 28, 2007, to May 28 of this year.
Wilhelm separated the more serious calls by category, saying his department investigated five assaults, four burglaries, 16 disturbances, 10 larcenies, two sex offenses, 19 suspicious people, two threats and 13 vandalisms.
In all, the area registered 224 calls for service to police in a year’s time.
Norde Wilson, a major owner of rental property in the area, questioned how meaningful any crime statistics are before the fact.
“They’re not here yet,” he said of the House of Hope residents.
The city’s approval or denial of the special-use permit is based on five standards.
“The Planning Board is not a social service organization,” committee member Craig Neuhardt said. That is why the board was seeking factual evidence through the whole process.
Among other things, the standards require that the structure maintain the appearance of a residence and be in compliance with conditions set forth by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The standard that has been most open to discussion and interpretation says “the public health, safety and welfare will be assured, and the proposed development will not substantially injure the value of adjoining property and associated uses if located where proposed.”
Phelps said residents of any neighborhood have to be concerned about safety these days.
He said his group has invited nearby residents to be part of a community advisory committee to House of Hope.
Thursday’s committee meeting room was full of opponents and supporters of the proposal, and Chairman Albert Stout tried to keep comments from the audience restricted to questions and new evidence the Planning Board can use to make its decision.
Ken Rufty, a South Ellis Street resident, asked whether the whole church had voted on this program and what percentage approved. Stout indicated the question wasn’t relevant for the Planning Board’s deliberations.
Martha Hawkins of South Fulton Street asked whether the home would have a curfew for residents. Donnie Taylor-Jefferson, vice chairperson of Westside Community Foundation, said residents would have a curfew but the time had not been determined.
Missie McGuire asked what recourse the neighborhood had if House of Hope opened and didn’t work. The council could rescind the permit, Senior Planner Preston Mitchell said.
Stout asked whether House of Hope meets current rules of the Department of Health and Human Services, or whatever state agency would be licensing it.
Jefferson said she would try to obtain an official opinion, but licensing of this kind of home may not be required.
Kay Wilson questioned the vagueness and haste with which the whole program was being put together. Jefferson said House of Hope wants to have residents by September.
Concerns also were raised about whether the house was the proper size and could accommodate eight men. Another neighbor asked what crimes the House of Hope residents will have committed.
DeeDee Wright said it was incumbent on the Planning Board and staff to do some research that included the number of police calls, traffic associated with a multi-resident dwelling and the like. She said she doesn’t oppose the House of Hope, only its proposed location.
Planning Board member Valarie Stewart pushed for more details of the operation and specifications on the house itself.
“What I’m hearing is that the program is an excellent program,” but there’s still a question about the location, Stewart said.
Taylor-Jefferson said part of the program’s case management plan is to know where House of Hope residents are at all times.
Phelps also submitted letters of support for the program from Mayor Susan Kluttz, the Employment Security Commission and the program director at Piedmont Correctional Institution, besides the award letter from the Governor’s Crime Commission.
Supporters stressed again that the House of Hope staff would interview and screen potential residents while they are still in prison to determine who fits the program.
The Planning Board will continue its deliberations on the House of Hope proposal at 4 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 217 S. Main St.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka @salisburypost.com.