In my back yard already

In my back yard already

When a halfway house asked for permission to locate up to 20 more sex offenders in Beaumont’s north end, community activists felt the need to speak out. The Old Town residential neighborhood already had more than its fair share of blight to contend with, opponents told elected city leaders and zoning commissioners — not to mention nearly 200 other sex offenders already housed a short stroll from schools, HUD-funded apartment complexes, a park, city swimming pool, football stadium and the school district’s bus depot.

The call to action was heard during a Beaumont Planning and Zoning Commission meeting held Jan. 23 when the board was to ponder a request made by Marcia Garner on behalf of A Chance For A New Beginning to allow a halfway house to conduct business in a residential neighborhood in the 3300 block of Magnolia Street. Planning manager Steve Richardson outlined the proposal to a packed room in Beaumont City Hall.

“Garner states that the facility will house up to 20 male clients and offer transitional to permanent housing with an average stay of six to 12 months,” he said. Richardson added that the program was to provide the clients with shelter, food, clothing, job training, religious study and 12-step meetings. According to Richardson, also part of the scope of offerings available to clients would be “substance abuse and sex offender rehabilitation classes.”

The planning manager said, based on his review of Garner’s application, the proposal should be denied because, “The proposed use would not only affect property values but, more importantly, be a detriment to the safety of the neighborhood.”

Although Garner assured those opposed to the facility that only low- to moderate-risk offenders would be moving in, Richardson’s recommendation was unchanged as he further went on to outline the structural deficiencies noted in the proposed facility location. Aside from not being up to the city’s fire code, the 51-year-old dilapidated structure owned by Freddie and Zoreh Shahrodi has a Jefferson County Appraisal District worst possible rating (poor) for the property’s condition. The 2,000-square-foot structure has only one bathroom and is appraised at less than $30,000. The list went on, but point after point kept returning to the impact the facility’s new residents would have on its neighbors.

But it wasn’t just Richardson who was vocal in opposing the facility’s arrival. Jefferson County Tax Assessor Shane Howard argued that “we wouldn’t do this in any other neighborhood,” while dozens of concerned citizens cheered in support. While general concession was given that the idea of a halfway house was well intentioned, a fervent plea was made that a community predominately serving school-age kids and the elderly wasn’t the place for it.

“I promised I’d never let this happen again,” an impassioned Jefferson County Commissioner Bo Alfred proclaimed, alluding to the current Beaumont halfway house at 2495 Gulf St., which has regularly had in excess of 200 sex offenders living there at multiple intervals over the years, and typically houses between 170 and 180 such offenders daily.

Beaumont Housing Authority executive director Robert Reyna, who has facilitated rehabilitation of the city’s once-decrepit public housing market with more than $50 million in improvements on property a couple blocks from the current halfway house, said the area couldn’t afford to add to the unsavory element already in place.

“Residents in this neighborhood already feel unsafe with the existing halfway house,” said Reyna. “The residents are scared for their safety – and, frankly, we are too.”Beaumont takes Texas’ unwanted

Although Beaumont Transitional Treatment Center Facility director Ted Blanchard said the more than 170 sex offenders housed at the Gulf Street address were under a strict curfew starting at 6 p.m., by 6 a.m. on any given weekday the back gate surrounding the complex is wide open with registered sex offenders coming and going as school buses make their rounds in the neighborhood. Beaumont Councilman Jamie Smith has a problem with that.

“We don’t need this element in our residential neighborhoods,” Smith said. Smith’s constituents echoed the same. “I have people tell me they’re scared to let their children walk to school. They want to know, ‘Why in my neighborhood?’”

Information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice answers that question – because there are few, if any, other places for these offenders to go.

In 2004, Beaumont’s facility was one of only three halfway houses in the state that accepts sex offenders. And if TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons’ perception and the stiff opposition to Beaumont’s most recent halfway house proposal meeting are any indication, not many new places of refuge for sex offenders will be added in the coming years. TDCJ records show there are 1,830 contracted halfway house beds for the agency’s use, with over 200 offenders currently awaiting placement. More than 100 are sex offenders.

“During fiscal year 2011, there were a total of 7,596 sex offenders released from TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division,” Lyons reported. “Of that number, 3,552 were released to parole supervision and 4,044 served their entire sentence and were discharged (and not released onto parole supervision). As of (Jan. 24), there are 153 sex offenders housed at the Beaumont Center.”

That number is down considerably from a report facility director Blanchard gave a Beaumont Code Enforcement officer in November 2011. The officer had made contact with the halfway house at the request of city officials who noted multiple infractions at the facility more than a year before that had yet to be corrected. During the initial investigation, Beaumont City Manager Kyle Hayes documented more than 200 sex offenders living on the premises. On the subsequent trip, the code enforcement officer noted Blanchard as saying there were “178 or 179” residents, although the facility director was unsure of the exact number.

Concise bookkeeping would be necessary when it comes to reimbursement, though, and each resident’s stay at the halfway house is valued at $38.71 per day, or roughly $13,800 annually. Lyons said that amount would be paid by TDCJ “as long as the offender is authorized by TDCJ to reside in the facility,” which, for some, has been years. Resident Kenneth Dann’s records show he has been a resident at 2495 Gulf St. since March 2007 when he was released on parole after serving time for indecency with a child by sexual contact, and is still unemployed. Lyons said cases such as Dann’s aren’t uncommon.

“All the people at that location are there because there is nowhere else for them to go,” Lyons said. “It’s not foreign for there to be resistance to these types of facilities. People say, ‘Not in my back yard.’ It’s understandable, but these places are geared to rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

Lyons said many of the offenders housed on Gulf Street were ousted by the communities they came from, and are essentially transients. Few are able to garner employment, and those who do are required to submit 25 percent of their paychecks to the halfway house to offset their expenses. With obstacles so daunting, Lyons said it isn’t surprising these offenders are under the state’s umbrella for lengthy amounts of time.

“Many of these offenders can’t just go home, or to their mother’s house. The communities just won’t allow it. They are really backed into a corner,” Lyons said. “No one wants them, and we can’t just release them out to homelessness.”

Beaumont NAACP president the Rev. Ronnie Bishop said he is compassionate to the person, but the crime shouldn’t be overlooked.

“There are other places to put them than in our residential neighborhoods,” he said.

The Beaumont City Council will take all the opinions offered so far into consideration when the group makes a decision on whether to allow the new halfway house to set up shop, and a vote on the matter is expected within the next couple weeks. Tentative remarks from the elected group show it doesn’t favor the proposal. Paroled sex offenders will still have a place to live in Beaumont through Gulf Street’s Beaumont Transitional Treatment Center should the new facility lose its bid since current residents of the facility say there are a few empty beds.