Sunday, February 15, 2015

Roanoke Rescue Mission is the Only Homeless Shelter from Interstate 64 south to the North Carolina Border that Allows Sex Offenders

Mission's growing ministry to homeless leaves some neighbors losing hope; trust, February 15, 2015
By Matt Chittum

Somebody had been sleeping with the dead again. 

In the center of the old Roanoke City Cemetery on Tazewell Avenue Southeast, a mattress pad sprawled across the final resting place of George and Beulah Bell. One corner of a blue and white comforter was peeled back, leaving the makeshift bed unmade.

The frozen dregs of a cup of 7-Eleven store coffee rested on a nearby headstone. Amy Morgan, president of the Belmont Neighborhood Association, paused over the bedding. It had been 11 degrees the night before. 

“It can’t stay here,” she said suddenly, sweeping the bedding up in two arms. “I’ve worked too hard for this neighborhood.” 

She hauled the linens over to a dumpster at the rear of the Roanoke Rescue Mission, where hundreds of homeless people sleep in warm beds nightly — nearly 2,700 of them last year, including more than 500 children. 

The problem for Morgan and her neighbors is not the hundreds who get a hand up from the mission. It’s those she says come for a handout and linger in the neighborhood, enabled by free meals at the mission to spend their money on Steel Reserve lager beer by the quart, sleep in the woods, urinate in public, and litter the streets. It’s the more than 30 registered sex offenders who list the Rescue Mission as their home or work address. 

The Rescue Mission is an asset to those it aids, Morgan knows, and it enjoys broad community support from thousands of volunteers and donors who give millions. 

“It’s about that feel-good feeling when they serve soup,” Morgan said. “I challenge anybody to come down here and help clean up the neighborhood and see the other side of homelessness. And you won’t walk away with that feel-good feeling.”

Belmont has many of the elements that should be making it an up-and-coming downtown neighborhood, Morgan and others say, but that kind of revitalization isn’t happening and they say the mission is one obstacle to it. 

The mission, they say, is a magnet for people who bring problems to a neighborhood already beset with enough problems of its own — poverty, absentee landlords, too much rental property, few homeowners, and a litany of issues that follow from those. 

Now, the mission has plans for changes and additions of services that opponents believe will only exacerbate problems they attribute to the mission. 

The mission wants to move its kitchen across Fourth Street into what is now the nonprofit’s thrift store, and use the old kitchen space to create a Day Activity Center for the homeless. No new beds will be added. The changes will require a rezoning by the Roanoke City Council. 

Mission CEO Joy Sylvester-Johnson said she and her staff have spent three years listening to and addressing neighborhood concerns, and that her plans are responsive to neighborhood wishes. 

“It’s a zoning change. We feed people on one side of the street. We’re trying to feed people on the other side of the street,” she said. “It’s doing more of the good things we’re already doing to help people out of homelessness faster. And I can’t imagine that any good citizen would want it to be otherwise.” 

Quality of life issues 

Sylvester-Johnson has heard these complaints before. 

The mission, which has been feeding the homeless at Tazewell and Fourth since 1948, took on Belmont neighborhood opposition in 2002 over plans to add a women and children’s shelter next to the main mission building. The concerns voiced then were much the same as today. 

Sylvester-Johnson organized three busloads of supporters, including mission residents, to pack both the Roanoke Planning Commission and city council before votes on a necessary rezoning. She won approval at both levels. 

Councilman Bill Bestpitch, who was on council then and is again today, told her, “This is it, Rescue Mission, this is it. … If there are other additions, then it has to be built somewhere else.” 

In 2011, Sylvester-Johnson announced plans to expand the mission’s kitchen and move the thrift store from its location on Fourth Street to a church building the mission owns on land where Bullitt and Jamison avenues diverge. 

Again, neighborhood opposition erupted. Crime data at the time showed 601 offenses within two blocks of the mission.  

Forty percent of offenses were alcohol related, and 62 percent were quality of life offenses — alcohol, mental health issues, disorderly people, fights and the like. Within a 500-foot radius of the mission, a separate study found, more than one-third of offenders were mission residents, as were one-third of the victims. 

Fourth Street was so bad, you couldn’t drive down it,” Morgan said. 

Sylvester-Johnson backed off on the plans and she and the mission staff sat down with neighbors from Belmont and elsewhere in southeast to work through a conflict resolution process. 

By all accounts, Sylvester-Johnson and the mission were responsive. Mission staff began going out on “engaged presence” walks through the neighborhood to engage loiterers, offer them services, pick up trash. 

The issues on Fourth Street have improved dramatically, Morgan said, and she credits the mission’s efforts. Sylvester-Johnson became an active member of the Belmont Neighborhood Association. The mission added a board position to be filled by a representative from the neighborhood, has refused service to people seen by neighbors doing anything illegal and actively calls the police when they see anything suspicious, Sylvester-Johnson said. 

“I would suggest that … it’s one of the safest areas in the neighborhood,” she said. She lives in an apartment in the mission’s main building, and her son and grandchildren live a block away. “I come and go at all hours of the night and I’m 65 years old and I’m a woman.” 

There seemed to be peace in the neighborhood. 

As for the mission’s plans that sparked the whole process, Sylvester-Johnson said she told others, “When we have something for show and tell, we would come back to them.” 

Some say Sylvester-Johnson agreed to halt the plans. Morgan assumed the mission’s plans weren’t coming back, but acknowledges not asking specifically. 

When Sylvester-Johnson began calling neighborhood leaders in October seeking to meet with them and unveil her latest plans and get their input, Morgan and others were floored. 

The mission’s plan 

“We honestly believed we had listened and incorporated the ideas we’d been hearing to make this work for everyone involved,” Sylvester-Johnson said. 

The plan has two main components. 

One is moving the kitchen, which is now in the mission’s main building, across Fourth Street to what is now the mission’s thrift store. 

Sylvester-Johnson said that move is driven by a need to handle the massive food donations the mission receives to feed those it serves. The mission can now serve a plate of food at an average cost of 5.2 cents. 

Moreover, the mission receives more fresh food than ever before, so storage needs are growing and changing, she said.

With the move, Sylvester-Johnson hopes to add a kind of culinary school to the operation where mission guests can learn a trade for service jobs like food preparation that can lead to quick employment. 

In what is now the kitchen space, she hopes to establish a Day Activity Center where the homeless can apply for jobs, see case workers, store their belongings and do laundry. 

Sylvester-Johnson said that idea was born of the conversations during the mediation process. 

“It was brought up multiple times,” she said. “It was on the list of what people wanted.” 

The thrift store would close, but Sylvester-Johnson said it would reopen nearby, in part because people who live in the neighborhood who shop there asked for it. No site has been identified. The church building on Bullitt/Jamison hasn’t been ruled out, she said. 

Mark Powell, a southeast neighborhood activist who was in the meetings, denied that the notion of a day center came from any consensus. He called the mission’s seizing that idea “cherry-picking.” 

To Powell, Morgan and others, the mission’s plans represent a move that will make the mission an even more powerful draw for chronically homeless men who cause problems in the neighborhood. 

Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins said he has “concerns” about the day center and how it will operate. He doesn’t disagree that it will likely draw more homeless people into the neighborhood, and said it’s a “fair question” whether the mission has concentrated too many services in one place. 

But he said the mission provides a valuable, important service, and he praised Sylvester-Johnson’s work with neighbors. 

“Joy and her staff have responded to the issues deliberately and in a pro-active way,” he said. “She realized that she’s part of the community.” 

Sylvester-Johnson said 21 of her staff members live in the neighborhoods near the mission, and some donors, too. “I think they support what we’re doing,” she said. 

Morgan and others remain worried. The trust between the neighborhood and Sylvester-Johnson built up during the mediation “is gone,” Morgan said.

A distressed neighborhood 

Before running across that makeshift bed in the city cemetery, Morgan was just about done with her latest tour of a half-dozen spots around the neighborhood where the detritus suggests regular use. 

All are within a few blocks of the mission. 

Steel Reserve beer and Mad Dragon wine bottles littered each of them. The survey that day found a pair of socks drying on a sapling, dozens of pieces of discarded clothing, a slop bucket, a condom wrapper. In one spot near the P &N Market, she found a mattress, a backpack and the remains of a fire, all within a couple of feet of a no trespassing sign.

Morgan, Powell and others believe they are the hangouts of chronically homeless men who don’t go to the mission to sleep, but are happy to get a free meal there so whatever money they have can go to alcohol. The mission enables them, they say. 

“You don’t know their background at all. They don’t have much to lose,” Morgan said. 

Sylvester-Johnson doesn’t accept the premise that those sites exist because of the mission, or even that they are populated only by the homeless. 

“I think they come from a variety of places, some from the neighborhood, some from here,” she said, referring to the mission. 

Such sites exist in many areas across the city, according to Carol Tuning, Roanoke’s human services administrator and chair of the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care to address homelessness. They’re fostered by a combination of available alcohol and seclusion provided by wooded areas. 

Sylvester-Johnson said the mission can’t control how people behave outside the mission anyway. 

Perkins, the police chief, agreed, and believes the issues in Belmont are far more complex than just the presence of the Rescue Mission there. It’s a mix of poverty, a high percentage of rental property and absentee landlords, young people, and many other factors. 

“When you have all this going on in one area, you can see why that would distress the neighborhood,” he said. 

“Not all the issues are the mission’s fault but I believe they play a huge part,” Morgan said. 

And while the mission’s efforts cleared the problems away from Fourth Street, Morgan says the issues haven’t gone away. 

Data from the Roanoke Police Department shows that from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, police recorded 656 offenses within two blocks of the mission — 55 more than three years earlier. Quality of life crimes accounted for 60 percent of the offenses. 

“Raw data says nothing really, except that the calls for service increase, as I understand it, is partly attributed to mission staff and their increased engagement,” Perkins said. 

“If you’re on the interdiction list [of people who cannot be sold alcohol] and you show up drunk, we call the police,” Sylvester-Johnson said. 

It’s more engagement, including from people in the neighborhood following Morgan’s example, that really makes a difference, Perkins said. 

Morgan said that’s harder than it sounds.

“No one wants to call the law on something that will be seen as trivial and keep calling and not see change,” she said.  

“Quality of life issues will wear you down to where you don’t care or you move.” 

Sex offenders allowed 

Ken Guthrie, 45, and his wife Marie and their three kids live two blocks from the mission in a house they bought 15 years ago because it was one they could afford. 

They have three kids, 17, 15 and 6. 

“I’ve never really let them go out and play in the neighborhood,” he said. It’s not just the “alcoholic bums” he sees walking the streets and alleys that he worries about for his children. 

It’s the 93 registered sex offenders who reside or work in the 24013 zip code that covers the Belmont neighborhood and much of southeast Roanoke, according to the Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry. Thirty-three of them are associated with a single address: the Rescue Mission. 

The mission is the only homeless shelter from Interstate 64 south to the North Carolina border that allows sex offenders to stay, according to a state police sex offender investigator in an email to a southeast neighborhood activist. 

“I’m very concerned,” Guthrie said, though he recognizes that being a registered sex offender doesn’t mean a person is continuing threat. “Some had a mishap and they didn’t have nobody on their side in court and they got hammered.” 

But the concentration of sex offenders around the mission in a neighborhood that has dozens of sex offenders already living there is a worry for Guthrie, Morgan, Powell and others. 

Perkins is alert to problems that could arise from such a grouping. 

“It is a concern, but it’s a concern I have for the whole city,” he said. He would want to know more about the particular offenses and when they occurred, among other things. 

Many of the offenses of the men on the registry, including four who list the mission as a work address, date back to the 1980s and 1990s. One dates to 1977. Ten, however, were convicted in the past five years, according to the state police registry.

At least 26 had victims who were minors, and more than two-thirds committed their offenses someplace other than the Roanoke Valley. 

The state police investigator suggested in his email that many find their way to Roanoke because they know the mission will take them in. 

“There are people on the registry in every neighborhood,” Sylvester-Johnson said. 

If an offender is in the mission, however, many people know where he is and what he’s doing, she said. Staffers do intake every evening and send their census of who has stayed overnight to local and state authorities every morning, she said. The mission is staffed around the clock, so no one staying there is unsupervised, and men are not allowed in the women and children’s shelter. 

Meal times are staggered so men eat at a different time from women and children. 

“If I were living in the neighborhood,” Sylvester-Johnson said, “I’d be more concerned about people who are not at the Rescue Mission.” 

Can they coexist? 

Morgan knows the mission isn’t going anywhere. “But they can’t get any bigger,” she contends. 

The Rescue Mission owns nearly 8 acres in Belmont, stretching from one main southeast gateway on Tazewell Avenue almost to the other at Bullitt/Jamison. Sylvester-Johnson acknowledged there are other buildings adjacent to mission property they’d also like to own if they came available — a rental house on Dale Avenue and the commercial building where K-Guard Gutter operates. 

“I think they consolidate and operate in southeast because it’s been politically easy for them,” said Kevin Kittredge, a former Roanoke Times journalist, who lives a few blocks from the mission on Elm Avenue. “But we’re not a throwaway neighborhood anymore.” 

Sylvester-Johnson defends the mission’s impact on the neighborhood, via its campus, which includes the shelters, thrift store and a free clinic and one of the largest public art installations in the city. 

“Every time the Rescue Mission gets involved with a building, it gets better,” she said. 

Both the city’s neighborhood plan for Belmont and its comprehensive plan would seem to discourage further growth by the mission. Both plans call for shelter services to be distributed throughout the city. 

Perkins’ hope is that Sylvester-Johnson and the neighbors can work together to make the valuable service the mission provides work for the neighborhood, too. Sylvester-Johnson took her plan to the neighborhood first this time. “You’ve got to see that as huge progress,” he said. 

Southeast and the Rescue Mission can coexist, Kittredge said, “but it’s going to require a sensitivity to the neighborhood they’ve never shown.” 

For now, the mission’s plans are out there, but no petition for the needed rezoning has been filed. 

“We want to see if there’s any way we can improve our plans,” Sylvester-Johnson said, “and when we’re ready to file, we’ll file.”