Sorority objects to halfway house

Brian Close

Residents of a sorority house in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood say criminal residents of a neighboring halfway house harass them and pose a threat to their safety.
Officials for the Portland House, located near Fifth Street and 11th Avenue, say that all necessary precautions are taken. But women from the neighboring sorority house claim the halfway house inmates have approached them at night, parked in their driveway, and threatened them on several occasions.
“Most of the women are practically running from the car to the house,” said Shyla Carpenter, president of the sorority. “There are nights where (Portland residents) are out there all hours.”
Citing safety concerns and national rules, the women asked that the sorority not be named.
The 25-year-old halfway house is run by Lutheran Social Services and accepts male criminals with eight months or less until their release date.
“It is used as a way to make the transition back into the community easier,” said Kathleen Messinger, who has been the program manager at the house since its inception.
The sorority women said they have attempted to get the problems resolved by having their house mother call the halfway house, but to no avail.
But Messinger said the rules of the house are very rigid.
“There’s very strict accountability,” she said. “If they’re unaccountable, a warrant goes out within a couple hours and they’re back in jail.”
John Kennedy, intake and case manager at the house, said 60 to 65 percent of inmates are sent back to prison or jail, most commonly for failing urinalysis tests for drugs, which are administered weekly.
“Sixty to 40 is not a bad ratio given the population we are dealing with,” he said.
Messinger said even the people who are sent back to jail do not bear a grudge against her.
“I get a letter from each and every one of them,” she said.
Carpenter said most of the problems occur when new inmates move into the house.
“It always seems to happen when a new batch comes in,” she said.
Because the Portland House functions as a work release program, the residents are all required to find jobs within 30 days.
Messinger said the work component is an important part of the program.
“If you’re in prison for any length of time, it’s very scary having no job and not knowing where you’re going to live,” she said.
But because the inmates are free to come and go from the house during the day, the women have complained that the men cut across the sorority lawn on the way to the bus lines and present a security problem.
Portland House administrators plan to erect a fence around the property. They have recently installed security cameras to help them monitor outside activities.
“We hear everything that goes on and see everything that goes on,” Kennedy said.
He said the rules are clear the residents are to have no contact with neighbors, and that there are consequences for walking through the neighbors’ lawns.
Gang colors, baggy pants and vulgarity are also banned at the facility.
“All in all, I think we’re pretty hard on the guys,” Messinger said.
Although the women said they think one man was sent away after they notified Messinger of his conduct, they said their complaints have not been addressed properly.
In early March the women, with the help of state legislative candidate Rob Fowler, went to the Republican caucus and authored a plank for the Republican platform.
The resolution passed unanimously, and was sent to the district caucus, where it also passed. The resolution will now be sent to the state convention where, if passed, the party will add it to the Republican platform, signifying party support.
The resolution calls for a prohibition of halfway houses for sexual offenders near schools. However, the women recently learned the Portland House does not accept sexual offenders.
Rather, Portland House goes through a lengthy process of determining who will be allowed to join the program and live at the house.
Although most of the residents are property offenders, some have histories of assault and drug crimes.
Six of the house’s spaces are for state prison inmates nearing the end of their terms. The other 19 spaces are for workhouse and local jail inmates, some of whom are serving probation at the house.
Questionable intake cases are reviewed by an advisory board, which includes probation officers, a police officer, an ex-resident of the house, and a member of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.
“If there’s anything that shows this guy’s behavior will be a threat to the community, we won’t have him here,” Kennedy said.
Fowler, a University law student, said he will amend the resolution to ban all criminal halfway houses near schools.
He said having criminals near the University and single-sex housing doesn’t make sense.
“You don’t want criminals living where not only the potential for victimization is great, but these folks have realized it on prior occasions,” he said.
But Jan Morse, president of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association, said the community should accept its share of these types of community services.
She said the neighborhood group takes complaints very seriously, but that Portland House officials have been responsive regarding the group’s concerns.
Although the sorority women said they have tried to work out their problems with the house, Morse stressed the importance of dealing directly with Portland House officials.
“I would like to see people, if they have concerns, go through the proper channels and get them addressed, instead of demonizing the people there and blaming them for every bad thing that happens in the neighborhood,” Morse said.
But Fowler said the issue can’t wait until something harmful happens.
“I think it would be irresponsible to not take action until something bad happens and it can’t be reversed,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the neighbor’s burden to prove it.”
Nonetheless, Messinger and Kennedy are very serious about the benefits the program has on the lives of their residents.
“They’ve paid for their crimes, but society does hold them down,” Messinger said.
Kennedy agreed, and said both of them have a dual role at the house.
“You gotta walk the fine line of cop and counselor,” he said.
Messinger said the nature of the program leads to some problems.
“Even though there’s so much accountability, they’re not locked down,” she said. “Our utmost concern is the community.”
The women and Fowler are planning a summer rally to protest the house’s presence in the community.