Neighbors Oppose Mission Expansion

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Eddy Smart and Donna Chewning of the CRC with Mark Powell, Pres. of SEAF.
Eddy Smart and Donna Chewning of the CRC with Mark Powell, Pres. of SEAF.

by Valerie Garner

“It’s a trust issue with the neighborhoods,” said Mark Powell, president of the Southeast Action Forum. The unspoken “elephant in the room” Monday evening was the unwanted expansion of the Rescue Mission on 4th street in Southeast Roanoke.

The Rescue Mission plans to relocate its thrift store to Bullitt Avenue, leaving room to then move their current kitchen and dining areas to the thrift store. The present kitchen and dining areas would then be used to increase and better utilize existing beds at the mission.

The Rescue Mission calls it a “re-purposing,” but many in the neighborhood see it as an expansion. Ten years ago when the neighborhood fought against the new women’s shelter they won assurances from then City Manager Darlene Burcham that there would be no more expansion.

There were about 50 people at the Jackson Park Library including council members Ray Ferris, Bill Bestpitch, Anita Price, Mayor David Bowers and his Democratic Primary opponent Sam Rasoul.

Staff from a variety of city offices including code enforcement, planning, waste management, as well as Deputy Police Chief Tim Jones attended the meeting along with residents that came from the Belmont and Nazerene Neighborhood Watches and members of the Southeast Action Forum.

Lt. Mac Babb said the preponderance of 911 calls were nuisance related – mostly alcohol, and trespassing violations. He said “the concentration of these non-violent offenses in the proximity of the Rescue Mission affects the quality of life of the neighborhoods.”

Matt Henry, President of the Nazarene Neighborhood Watch Group suggested the Rescue Mission hire a full time security officer during the day. Despite no trespassing signs “they hang in the street all day long,” said Liz Dudley, president of the Belmont Neighborhood Watch.

Joy Sylvester-Johnson, the mission’s executive director, sat quietly as attendees broke out into three different groups facilitated by Eddy Smart and Donna Chewning of the Conflict Resolution Center. Powell asked them to facilitate what could have been a contentious meeting. Smart then proceeded to lead the group in compiling ground rules for the discussions that included not interrupting and speaking one at a time.

Resident Duane Howard has formed a separate group called “Neighbors United” that includes residents from the affected neighborhoods. The group says they are opposed to anything that looks like an expansion of the Rescue Mission.

All admit that the Rescue Mission fills a social need by sheltering the homeless and the downtrodden. It is the repeat offenders and chronic alcoholics that loiter on their property that causes angst for the weary neighborhoods. One suggested partial solution has been to refuse sale of single serve alcohol products at the two stores adjacent to the Rescue Mission.

Matt Henry president of the Nazarene Neighborhood Watch said that there are actually five stores that the transients frequent. Restriction of the sale of single serve alcohol products would require intervention by the ABC board – a long process that could have mixed results.

“They need a place to go during the day,” said Henry. Kirk Ballin said that not all want to take the bus to RAM house for shelter during the day. “They don’t like the restrictions RAM imposes.” Smoking, cigarette butts, littering, public urination, and buses bringing vagrants from outside the Roanoke Region were added to the list of complaints.

Ballin said, “they were committed to finding a solution.”

After each group produced a laundry list of possible solutions the group at large narrowed it down to three. The focus never left the first item that everyone selected as the top priority – which was the “homeless disappearing from the streets.”

They concluded that one solution would mostly solve the second and third priorities of “enhanced security” and “personal responsibility.”

The next step is to have neighborhood advocates meet with the Rescue Mission in less than 30 days in hopes of negotiating policies that would meet the neighborhoods concerns.

There is a resolution being refined that neighborhood residents can sign once completed.

The resolution points to the Belmont–Fallon Neighborhood Vision Plan adopted in 2003 that says in part, “While the Rescue Mission and other such agencies provide crucial human services, these facilities already have a considerable presence in the area and further expansion of homeless shelter functions should be avoided.”

After the meeting Rescue Mission Director Joy Sylvester-Johnson said, “The Rescue Mission is eager to participate in this dialogue in hopes that the specific issues of panhandling and loitering can be addressed. Targeting the small group that is doing these things and holding them personally responsible (some are homeless and some are not) is key to the success of our efforts. Most of the homeless at the Mission are law abiding and hard working people who have encountered difficult circumstances and need a place to start over. They are “invisible” because they look and act in ways that do not draw attention to themselves. I am hopeful this dialogue will produce creative solutions that will help all involved.”