Neighborhood meeting assuages some fears, but worries others

Freedom Works, a post-prison ministry, will look to locate in a former convent at 869 E. Fifth St. where they’d provide housing for about 24 men who are recently released from prison. (file photo)
Freedom Works, a post-prison ministry, will look to locate in a former convent at 869 E. Fifth St. where they’d provide housing for about 24 men who are recently released from prison. (file photo)

Post-prison ministry group hoping neighbors will be welcoming

With Freedom Works, a Christian post-prison ministry, hoping to locate in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, members of the organization met with community members on Tuesday, April 14 to have a dialogue.

Freedom Works, a Minneapolis-based organization, has applied for a conditional use permit to use a former convent at 869 E. Fifth St. as housing for about 24 former male inmates.

The building, owned by Catholic Charities, is adjacent to Sacred Heart Church and it sits right next to the public charter middle and high school Twin Cities Academy, which was once the church’s elementary school.

Applying for the permit is an initial step the company needs to take to verify that the vacant building can be used as Freedom Works would like it to be -- the organization has not yet purchased the building.

Freedom Works staff met with residents at Twin Cities Academy to discuss the potential for Freedom Works moving in. Nearby residents and parents of Twin Cities Academy children showed up to express concerns.

About 85 people showed up, although about a third of them were Freedom Works volunteers, board members and program participants.

“One of my first thoughts is, of course, for my daughter,” said Jessica Zimmerly, mother of a Twin Cities Academy student, who lives a few blocks away from the school.

“Why a building [housing former inmates] next to a school?” Zimmerly asked George Lang, executive director of Freedom Works.

Lang explained that Freedom Works was simply looking for a building that would suit its needs and the specific location was not a major deciding factor.

“Your concerns are my concerns,” Lang told her, noting that he has daughters as well. But, he added, there are already felons coming into the neighborhood. The difference is that the Freedom Works participants rarely commit new crimes-- the recidivism rate among participants is only 4 percent, Lang said.

Lang went on to explain that in the nonprofit’s 12 years on Minneapolis’ North Side, Freedom Works has never had a police call to the facility where a participant in the program was doing something unlawful. He said the staff have a positive relationship with Minneapolis neighbors, and do community barbecues and participate in community clean-ups and other such activities.

Another neighbor was concerned about encountering drunken drivers as a result -- George Lang, executive director of Freedom Works, said that 80 percent of the men in the organization’s programming don’t even have driver’s licenses.

One neighbor asked Lang what Freedom Works clients do with their spare time. The answer was, they don’t have much spare time. Rather, the men spend their time working or participating in Freedom Works programming.

One ex-inmate spoke up to tell residents that in his free time he goes to the gym, talks with his son on the phone, or participating in Freeom Works programming.

“People living there are serious about changing their lives,” he said.

Brittany, 32, who cares for foster children, lives across the street from the vacant convent. She said she was familiar with a number of halfway houses, because the foster children’s parents often have criminal histories.

Although she wasn’t familiar with Freedom Works, she reported liking what she heard about its programs during the meeting. “That makes me feel a little bit better,” she said.

By the end of the meeting, she said went from being completely against the organization moving in to feeling supportive.

But not all attendees’ fears were so assuaged.

One man, who said he lived nearby, complained that Dayton’s Bluff was an easy target for the post-prison ministry, because it’s a low-income neighborhood. He asked why the organization didn’t look to locate in gentrified neighborhoods such as Crocus Hill.

Kathy Burth, a Payne-Phalen resident who also happens to work in the corrections field, said she was skeptical of the organization, and was concerned how it might affect adjacent properties.

But, she added, “we need programs like this,” noting that she sees men leave prison and come right back only months later. She also said a lot of men are scared when they’re getting out, and don’t have an easy time finding housing.

Twin Cities Academy leaving?

Chris Fuhs, who works for Sacred Heart Church, said that it was looking likely that Twin Cities Academy would be moving out of the building in June 2016, when the school’s lease is up.

Twin Cities Academy staff confirmed this in a phone call after the meeting. The school, with 234 students, is looking to grow and move into a larger space where they could hold more extracurricular activities, and expand the number of students they serve.

Zimmerly, a parent of a Twin Cities Academy student, said she still had reservations about Freedom Works occupying the old convent, fearing it would give outsiders wanting to move to Dayton’s Bluff a bad impression.

She worries it also could intimidate future renters looking at the school building. For someone not familiar with Freedom Works, she wondered if they might hear that it houses former felons and want nothing to do with it.

“These things sound great ... but most people don’t know the difference (between Freedom Works and a halfway house),” she said.

A number of Freedom Works residents, board members and volunteers attended the meeting and spoke highly of the organization.

A pastor from Grace Evangelical Free Church in Fridley told the crowd that men at Freedom Works help out with a large-scale food shelf giveaway event at the church that’s coordinated with Second Harvest Heartland.

He said the men participating in Freedom Works show up rain or shine or snow, and have a big impact on the success of the food shelf giveaway.

Brady Irons, a resident of the Minneapolis Freedom Works facility, told the crowd that he’s been in the program for five months and is turning his life around. He’s been in prison three times, and sought out Freedom Works because it wasn’t just another halfway house.

He told the school parents and Dayton’s Bluff neighbors that he understood their concerns, but insisted, “that’s not us.”

“We pour our hearts into the community,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

 

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