ROCKLAND, Maine — A plan for an inmate re-entry home in a residential neighborhood outside Rockland’s downtown is causing concerns among neighbors.
But it’s not so much the idea of a home for recently released inmates that is causing unease, rather than the fact that neighbors did not know about the plans until the home was purchased by the group, Freedom Path LLC, earlier this month.
Since the purchase, neighbors have heard little to nothing from the Camden woman who is heading up the project, leaving many of their questions unanswered.
“I am a person who supports these programs. I am a person who would live in a neighborhood with a program like this if I had all of the information presented to me and was treated as if I were a partner,” neighbor Erika Schneyer said at a City Council meeting last week. “We need these programs desperately, but they will not be successful if you do not do your homework in the community.”
The project, the Unity House, is planned for a single-family home on Talbot Avenue. According to information Kathryn Matlack, the woman organizing the project, gave to city officials, Unity House would house three recently released inmates and a house manager.
Matlack declined an interview request but provided a statement on Tuesday that described the house as “a re-entry and recovery residence in Rockland that aims to provide housing to men who have paid their debt to society and are in need of a safe, sober place to live with structures and supports that help them thrive.”
A need for housing
About 1,300 inmates are released from Maine’s prisons each year, according to Department of Corrections data. Among the factors that contribute to a successful re-entry into society are safe housing, employment and access to treatment for mental health or substance use disorders, among others, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said this week.
“It’s important to have that safety net,” Liberty said. “If not, the [return to custody] rate will rise.”
When an inmate is preparing for release, Liberty said, caseworkers will try to work with the individual to find housing. Some inmates have family support systems willing to help them after release, but others do not, he said, which is where transitional housing comes into play.
The DOC does not have a relationship with privately run sober homes, Liberty said, and there are no regulations or licensing requirements to run such a home. However, probation officers and caseworkers are often familiar and maintain contact with the organizations that run the homes.
While Liberty said housing for inmates recently released from custody is desperately needed in the state, transitional housing projects need to be established in a way that won’t set the individuals up for failure.
Making sure the community is involved in the project is a big part of that, he said.
“It’s very important to gain the support of the community early on in the process,” Liberty said. “If you can bring them in and let them see the vision and ask them what they can do to make it successful, that establishes a partnership.”
Neighbors left with questions
But no one on Talbot Avenue feels like a partner in this project.
Suzanne MacDonald, who lives directly next to the site of the proposed re-entry home, said she has safety concerns living so close to the house with her two young children. Furthermore, she said the lack of outreach from Matlack shows a disregard for the neighborhood.
A couple weeks ago, MacDonald said she had to flag down Matlack when she was leaving the property and asked why she did not communicate with neighbors about her plans. Matlack told MacDonald that she did not have a good answer for the question, but it likely wouldn’t have changed her plans.
“They’re putting a black eye on this very valid work that should be done by not having the nerve to come to me,” MacDonald said last week, her voice shaking. “People need and deserve accurate information and transparency.”
In addition to the perceived lack of information, Talbot Avenue residents are worried about the impact the home will have on the safety of the neighborhood, as well as on property values.
According to applicant requirements Matlack provided the city, sex offenders will not be allowed to live in the home, nor will individuals who test positive for having drugs in their system or who need intensive substance use disorder treatment.
For Brenda Kurr, who lives two houses down from the Unity House, she worries the home will be a constant reminder of the murder of her son, Jason Moody, who was beaten to death in Bangor last fall.
“It’s a total reminder of everything I have gone through,” Kurr said at last week’s City Council meeting. “This is not right.”
Matlack declined to answer a set of follow-up questions the Bangor Daily News sent in response to her statement, including when she plans to open the home, what her background working with incarcerated individuals consists of and why there has been no notification to neighbors about the project.
However, in her statement, she wrote that, “Unity House is committed to strengthening its outreach to the community and beginning a dialogue rooted in mutual respect and tolerance.”
City officials looking for options
At a City Council meeting last week, Talbot Avenue residents pleaded with city officials to try to do something about the house, whether that be having Matlack go before the planning board or putting in place a moratorium on these types of transitional living homes.
However, there is little the city can do at this point.
Because the home will house only four people, Code Enforcement Officer John Root said the homeowner will not have to go before the planning board, given that city ordinances allow four unrelated individuals to live in a home together.
Root has communicated with Matlack about the plans, however, City Manager Tom Luttrell said they have been unsuccessful in establishing a meeting between Matlack, city officials and neighbors.
As of Wednesday, Luttrell said it’s still up in the air if the city can take any action on the plans, such as moratorium, though he has been in contact with the city’s attorney.
City councilors expressed empathy for Talbot Avenue residents. Because they are not notified when houses are purchased, councilors only recently learned about the project.
City Councilor Vallie Geiger expressed worry that there is a loophole in Rockland’s city ordinances that allow for group homes to be established without notification of the city or neighbors. A similar situation played out earlier this year when a Limerock Street home was purchased with the plan to turn it into a group home for disabled adults.
“I share your concerns. I understand your concerns,” Geiger told the concerned neighbors. “From my perspective, if there is anything the City Council can do, we will do it. It doesn’t sound like this is a process that was well thought out or planned. It shouldn’t have been sprung on the neighbors.”