Tuesday night, the Conway Planning Commission voted in favor of of an amendment to allow transitional housing in the Northeast Old Conway Area.
Specifically for ex-prisoners and parolees at the Phoenix Recovery Center, a transitional housing program for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.
Six commissioners voted in favor of the amendment. Planning Commission vice chairman Jeff Allender, secretary Lee Washington and commissioner Marilyn Armstrong voted against the amendment. Commissioner Wendy Shirar was not in attendance.
A public hearing was held before the vote. Six people spoke in favor of the proposal and more than 10 people spoke against the proposal including community members, church groups and Habitat for Humanity of Faulkner County, which owns property within the Phoenix Recovery Center campus.
There are currently 2,000 individuals in Faulkner County who are classified as ex-prisoners or parolees based on local parol office numbers. The Phoenix Recovery Center currently houses 3.5 percent of them, said Phoenix Recovery Center owner Matt Bell.
“Ours are nonviolent, ours are not sex offenders, ours have been background checked and drug tested, but I can’t say that for any of the other 1,930 outside of our facility,” Bell said.
Frank Shaw, of Shaw Frank Law Offices, said one of the things that distresses him most about the zoning ordinance is there’s no place in the city that allows transitional housing for men or women.
“In Conway, we’ve chosen not to address this issue ... we need a treatment center here, we need a psychiatric hospital and we need transitional housing for people who are coming out of prison,” he said. “Almost everyone who goes to prison gets out. Very few people stay for life, and if we don’t address the issue of when they get out and how we’re going to treat them when they re-enter, they reoffend.”
Faulkner County Justice of the Peace Linda Paxton raised a question about a condition in the amendment that states Bell could not rent to ex-prisoners if at any time MFB Investments loses accreditation or ceases participation with the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections.
If the city council denies the proposal, Bell can continue to rent to these same parolees and ex-prisoners because there is no ordinance against it.
“We all have offenders living on our streets, but these are supervised,” Shaw said.
Bryan Patrick said the land owner has the right to rent property to whomever he wants, but because this is a campus, specifically intended for transitional housing, it must be zoned by the city.
If the amendment is denied, Bell can rent to whoever he wants, Shaw said, including parolees as long as no subsidized rent is accepted and no services are provided.
Mike Willbanks, chairman of the board of Life After Prison Ministries, teaches a weekly re-entry class to the men currently unemployed at the recovery center.
“This is a needy population, and by needy I mean they want so bad to walk it straight,” he said. “They’re looking for a community like Conway — a caring community, an open community, one that steps out and does new things, and we need to do something new here,” he said.
After working at a recovery center in Little Rock, Phoenix Recovery Center Executive Assistant Wendy Founds, said Conway was like a breath of fresh air.
She said it was a lot harder to find jobs for men with criminal history in the capitol city than in Conway.
“I was amazed how receptive employers are here knowing we are drug testing,” she said. “This town is very forgiving.”
Gordon Ball, crime analysis and intelligence officer, said the year before Bell’s duplex rental property was turned into Phoenix Recovery Center, 41 percent of the calls to the Brown Subdivision came from Bell’s rental property.
In 2012, when the rental property was turned in the Phoenix Recovery Center, that percentage dropped to 28 percent.
In 2009, there were 146 incidents in the neighborhood as a whole, said Scott Grummer program manager community development, if current trends continue there will be 106 incidents this year, resulting in a 25 percent decrease in crime rate.
Lindsey Paxton, parole officer for the Department of Community Correction, said next to sex offenders, these men are the most closely supervised group.
Michelle Johnson, a resident in the area, said what representatives of the Phoenix Recovery Center are saying isn’t representative of how things are. “You can come to my house, and stay for a week and see how it really is,” she said.
Another resident from the neighborhood said the people at the recovery center suffer from more than drug and alcohol addictions, but mental conditions as well.
At the meeting Bell said the program doesn’t accept individuals with mental conditions, and the Phoenix Recovery Center website says individuals with “untreated mental disorders” are not eligible for admission.
Johnny Lucas, homeowner in the Brown subdivision, said he’s heard talk on the street about how the men look for drugs and alcohol.
“I live there,” he said. “I live this everyday. Come and spend a few hours over there and see how it all goes down.”
William Malcolm, resident of Spruce Street, said the Phoenix Recovery Center has a false sense of security. He described situations of parolees hiding cars a few streets away from the recovery center and jumping the fence.
“Really and truly, you don’t have the control that you think you have,” he said. “If you’re going to put it in the neighborhood, you need to have control — completely because we have enough problems down there.”
Calvin Crain, homeowner on Jersey Street, was the first to voice an opposition. He said he and his neighbors’ concerns have to do with property value, safety and the foot traffic from tenants walking out of the complex and down their streets to get to town.
With the Planning Commission’s recommendation to accept the amendment to allow transitional housing, the Conway City Council will vote on the amendment Sept. 24.
(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)