center of the old RoanokeCityCemetery
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.
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.
stay here,” she said suddenly, sweeping the bedding up in two arms. “I’ve
worked too hard for this neighborhood.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Now, the mission
has plans for changes and additions of services that opponents believe will
only exacerbate problems they attribute to the mission.
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 DayActivityCenter for the homeless.
No new beds will be added. The changes will require a rezoning by the Roanoke
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.
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.”
of life issues
has heard these complaints before.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
neighborhood opposition erupted. Crime data at the time showed 601 offenses
within two blocks of the mission.
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
“Fourth Street was
so bad, you couldn’t drive down it,” Morgan said.
backed off on the plans and she and the mission staff sat down with neighbors
and elsewhere in southeast to work through a conflict resolution process.
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.
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.
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.”
seemed to be peace in the neighborhood.
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
Sylvester-Johnson agreed to halt the plans. Morgan assumed the mission’s plans
weren’t coming back, but acknowledges not asking specifically.
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
The mission’s plan
honestly believed we had listened and incorporated the ideas we’d been hearing
to make this work for everyone involved,” Sylvester-Johnson said.
has two main components.
moving the kitchen, which is now in the mission’s main building, across Fourth Street to
what is now the mission’s thrift store.
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.
the mission receives more fresh food than ever before, so storage needs are
growing and changing, she said.
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.
is now the kitchen space, she hopes to establish a DayActivityCenter where the homeless
can apply for jobs, see case workers, store their belongings and do laundry.
said that idea was born of the conversations during the mediation process.
brought up multiple times,” she said. “It was on the list of what people
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.
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.”
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.
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.
said the mission provides a valuable, important service, and he praised
Sylvester-Johnson’s work with neighbors.
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.”
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.
and others remain worried. The trust between the neighborhood and
Sylvester-Johnson built up during the mediation “is gone,” Morgan said.
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.
within a few blocks of the mission.
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.
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.
don’t know their background at all. They don’t have much to lose,” Morgan said.
doesn’t accept the premise that those sites exist because of the mission, or
even that they are populated only by the homeless.
they come from a variety of places, some from the neighborhood, some from
here,” she said, referring to the mission.
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.
said the mission can’t control how people behave outside the mission anyway.
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
have all this going on in one area, you can see why that would distress the
neighborhood,” he said.
the issues are the mission’s fault but I believe they play a huge part,” Morgan
the mission’s efforts cleared the problems away from Fourth Street, Morgan says the issues
haven’t gone away.
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
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.
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.
engagement, including from people in the neighborhood following Morgan’s
example, that really makes a difference, Perkins said.
said that’s harder than it sounds.
wants to call the law on something that will be seen as trivial and keep
calling and not see change,” she said.
of life issues will wear you down to where you don’t care or you move.”
Sex offenders allowed
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
three kids, 17, 15 and 6.
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.
93 registered sex offenders who reside or work in the 24013 zip code that
covers the Belmont neighborhood and much of
according to the Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry. Thirty-three of
them are associated with a single address: the Rescue Mission.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
26 had victims who were minors, and more than two-thirds committed their
offenses someplace other than the RoanokeValley.
police investigator suggested in his email that many find their way to Roanoke because they know
the mission will take them in.
are people on the registry in every neighborhood,” Sylvester-Johnson said.
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.
times are staggered so men eat at a different time from women and children.
were living in the neighborhood,” Sylvester-Johnson said, “I’d be more
concerned about people who are not at the Rescue Mission.”
knows the mission isn’t going anywhere. “But they can’t get any bigger,” she
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.
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
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.
time the Rescue Mission gets involved with a building, it gets better,” she
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
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.
and the Rescue Mission can coexist, Kittredge said, “but it’s going to require
a sensitivity to the neighborhood they’ve never shown.”
the mission’s plans are out there, but no petition for the needed rezoning has
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.”