Two voices from under one roof lament Cheverly's recent, quiet rejection of a halfway house for returning citizens, and examine the still-rampant fear of The Other that makes positive change so difficult.
/By Kurt Stand/ A halfway house in Cheverly, where I live, was proposed and quickly disposed -- with a breath of relief exhaled through much of the town. Of course, virtually everyone agreed that Prince George’s County should have a halfway house for returning citizens, for currently there is none. But where shall it be located? Presumably in either a poorer community with less political influence, or a more isolated community in which returning citizens are themselves kept isolated. Indeed there were legitimate concerns about the proposal put forward by Volunteers of America Chesapeake (VOAC) -- there was a lack of transparency in the process and the size large (142 residential beds, 70 day visits) created some uncertainty if profit was the motive, if services would be adequate.
Yet, those concerns were not translated into a positive set of proposals to bring the halfway house to our community in a form that would help homecomers return to family and civic life after incarceration. And thus a possibility for strengthening the bonds of community and overcoming fear was lost for Cheverly as well. At a time when the demagoguery of the Trump Administration has galvanized support for vulnerable communities, the vulnerability of those trapped within our country’s criminal justice system was marginalized and forgotten. The parallel is striking -- those who call for deportation of those deemed illegal will take the instance of a particular individual committing a heinous act as justification of condemning all, as Trump did during his campaign when he used a violent crime committed in the San Francisco Bay area by an immigrant as his excuse to denounce sanctuary cities. And so too, the fact that some individuals who proclaim themselves as Muslim commit acts of violence is used to tar all Muslims with the broad brush of “terrorism.” No surprise then that the image of a sex offender was held up as the flag of fear during the halfway house hearing. Using imagined future acts by some as reason to want to turn away or enclose behind barriers any who have completed their sentence exemplifies a logic parallel to those who implicate all Mexicans crossing the borders, all Syrian refugees, with the acts of others. It is known as assigning collective responsibility and status crime— tactics of every system of repression.
Of course, crime exists, people have a right to live in safety -- but walls of any sort provide no solution. Public safety isn’t enhanced by sweeping policies that have led to millions of people passing through our criminal justice system. They bring policing methods that target whole communities, that rely on suspicion rather than trust, that inhibit rather than help identify and apprehend those who might aim to harm their neighbors. Moreover, the resulting disruption of families, the resulting injustices, make all of us less free, not more secure. To make matters worse, our society then subjects those same individuals to a kind of permanent second-class citizenship, civil penalties remaining long after a sentence is complete, the eyes of suspicion never fully gone. Ban-the-box legislation (which prevents employers from asking individuals about their criminal record on initial job applications) would not otherwise be needed. Were such suspicions not rampant, we wouldn’t have so many prisons and so few halfway houses -- the disproportion between the two standing as a judgment on the true nature of our criminal justice system. It is a system less concerned about justice, more concerned about creating two classes of citizen, a truism drawn home by the fact that African American youth are disproportionately victimized.
By contrast, genuine security is only met by employment opportunities and housing possibilities that currently are lacking in addition to mental health, addiction treatment, family counseling and other service that too many are unable to access. Meeting those needs would not only benefit immigrants (Latino, Muslim, or others), would not only benefit returning citizens, it would benefit all the rest of us in the era of economic insecurity and ever greater inequality. Lost in the fevered opposition to the halfway house was that connection. The fear that its construction would depress property values and undermine attempts to bring businesses to our industrial zone would have only come to pass by giving in to the fear of those deemed “other.” By contrast, our community might have benefited had we risen to the occasion to advocate for the needs of those among us whose needs are greatest. It is a reminder that democracy and equality are intertwined, as are justice and economic well-being. It is the reason we should see what happened for what it was -- an opportunity lost for strengthening community, an opportunity lost for Cheverly and for Prince George’s County.
One halfway house would not have solved everything, of course. But a positive pro-active perspective could have helped a few and created an example for the rest of the County. Instead, those coming out of prison remain invisible. My own experience in a halfway house -- not a happy time -- is instructive about that invisibility. Placed at Hope Village in DC, because of the absence of anything closer, I was at a facility much larger than the one proposed in Cheverly, a residence that provided little in the way of services, a place where transit connections were far from optimal. It was also a facility without any walls or barriers separating it from the surrounding community. In the past (though not recently) there were violent incidents nearby committed by one or two individuals. But the vast majority went about the business of getting on with their lives and got along with community residents. Moreover -- and it is a shame to have to point this out -- people who lived nearby didn’t have the kinds of fears about their children (children they seek to protect as much as residents of more well-off communities) being harmed by Hope Village residents that parents expressed in Cheverly. And, indeed, there is no record of children in the community being threatened or abused by those halfway house residents.
Hope Village is also the largest employer in that community. No doubt, people in the area would have preferred some other establishment (like the proposed but never built Walmart) but because the community is poor and black, neither politicians or business leaders feel compelled to do anything about it. Neither have residents of communities that profess concern for the dispossessed in our urban areas but will do nothing until something unwanted comes knocking at their door – well, that is NIMBY on full display. As we should know by now, eyes closed doesn’t solve problems, it only makes them greater.
Let us work and organize so that any future proposals are met in a spirit of generosity and solidarity, so needed in all arenas of life if we are to build the better society of which we are capable.
Legacy dog whistle rouses Cheverly opposition to re-entry program
/By Lisa Stand/ In the week that my husband was released from prison, I went during visiting hours to Hope Village halfway house in DC, to bring him some clothes and some money for Metro. Turns out, I ran into a former colleague, who was working in the front office of a large, influential national organization. She too was visiting a returning loved one.
Turns out, she or someone like her would be presumed undesirable in the comings and goings of a proposed halfway house recently NIMBY’ed out of Cheverly, Md., a few miles away, where I live. The proposal was quietly withdrawn in January without the need of official town or county process. The voices of unwelcoming Cheverly residents and maneuvers of elected insiders were sufficient to end the project.
A handful of neighbors stood up to caution against stigma and prejudice, hoping the community would engage positively with Volunteers of America, the contractor chosen to operate the halfway house and re-entry program. However, the work to kill the deal was quick and not very transparent. The County just somehow on its own decided to try to find another place for this federally-funded program, which is greatly needed to serve individuals and families who call Prince George’s County home.
Opponents included a resident who threatened to back out of a promised easement for a public bike path near the site. Town notices about the proposal repeatedly cited plans for the bike path and the proximity of the site to a pool. At a planning council meeting, the mayor also noted private development plans for the adjacent area, questioning the suitability of a halfway house. The planning council then moved on to speak approvingly of plans for a dog park in another part of town.
For myself, with roots in Cheverly that go back to the early 1960s, calling out the private Cheverly pool as a reason to rally against a group of people is haunting as it is also cruelly ironic. The same pool excluded Black people around the time my family moved here, and was openly known to be unwelcoming for years after legal segregation ended.
When I returned in the 1990s to a community that was more residentially diverse, I thought a lot had changed, and I still think so. In reality, there was some racial diversity among people with concerns about the halfway house, and I can accept the decisions that have been made. But I am astonished that outdoor swimming pools can still be invoked to raise fear and activate communities against perceived difference. In politics these days, we call that a “dog whistle” and I’m disappointed so many people in Cheverly heard its call.
Kurt Stand and Lisa Foley Stand are members of Progressive Cheverly