Nonprofit supporting ex-offenders meets some community backlash

 FreedomWorks Executive Director George Lang hopes to move FreedomWorks residents from their former 3559 Penn Ave N. location to 2900 Emerson Ave N. The nonprofit is still waiting on approval from the Minneapolis Planning Commission.  Photo by Cirien Saadeh

FreedomWorks Executive Director George Lang hopes to move FreedomWorks residents from their former 3559 Penn Ave N. location to 2900 Emerson Ave N. The nonprofit is still waiting on approval from the Minneapolis Planning Commission. Photo by Cirien Saadeh

Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter

FreedomWorks Reentry and Aftercare, a faith-based nonprofit which offers housing, mentorship, and job training to formerly incarcerated men, is moving from their current location at 3559 Penn Ave N to the St. Olaf Campus at 2900 Emerson Ave N. They have plans for a small expansion, though that decision has not been well received by some who worry that the nonprofit will bring increased levels of crime to the community.

Community members discussed the move, and their fears, on social media. Some asked “why North Minneapolis?” Others wanted to see the the former nursing home converted into a senior living center or homeless shelter, and many were frustrated that the community did not seem to have a say in the nonprofit’s move. Many also wondered why North Minneapolis was serving as a “dumping ground,” though no explanation is provided for that term. Others worried that the new location is close to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School.

One Northsider said on a post announcing an open house hosted by the nonprofit on Oct. 18, “It seems we are stuck with them, might as well see what’s going on. I know I’d rather see and hear for myself what kind of program they got going and what kind of convicts can we expect to be living in our community.”

Community feedback has pushed the Minneapolis Planning Commission to postpone granting FreedomWorks the conditional use permit the nonprofit needs to move, even as the they continues to gut and renovate their new property.

According to FreedomWorks Executive Director George Lang, community fears do not reflect reality.

“When I look at the value FreedomWorks brings, we run a tight ship. We’re not committing crimes here in North Minneapolis. That has to have some value,” said Lang. FreedomWorks accepts formerly incarcerated Christian men of all backgrounds. They do not accept registered sex offenders, another community concern.

FreedomWorks moved to North Minneapolis from Wayzata in 2003. North News requested data from the Minneapolis Police Department related to any calls made to or about the property for the past five years. 16 calls have been made, in total, over that time, most of them by the property. This is echoed by Roberta Englund, Executive Director of the Webber-Camden Neighborhood Organization (WCNO), who commented on social media discussions that the 3995 property has never been a concern. The former property is located in Hawthorne and not Webber-Camden.

“The facility at 36th and Penn has not been a problem. The few incidents related to Freedom House that were specific to their residents were dealt with promptly, and there have been very few,” said Englund.

FreedomWorks provides a four-step process for formerly incarcerated men leaving prison. The first step is the credibility phase. During this phase residents need to complete 40 action steps in 40 days. These are meant to be measurable todo’s that help the individual settle into post-prison life. The second step is the core of the program as the men are provided with mentors, attend Bible Study, and continue to establish themselves. The third phase is goal-setting for whatever their next steps may be. The fourth phase is graduation and life after the structured FreedomWorks opportunity.

“Post-prison my directional compass was all screwed up. This place required me to be true to myself. It allowed me to be able to grow into a truthful frame of mind, find a job, get steady. I was able to reconcile with my kids. It made me look at myself and my worth. It made me recognize my worth,” said Melvin Brooks, Resident Manager at FreedomWorks and program graduate. “For those who really want to change, here it’s possible,” he said.

While a CUP with the City of Minneapolis does list a possible expansion to a maximum of 200 formerly incarcerated men, Lang insists that they are only considering an expansion from 15-30 over the next five years and do not have the capacity to consider expanding that much. According to Lang, the CUP was filed in such a way that if they expand again they will not need to file for a new one. The organization will also be offering affordable housing in certain campus buildings to veterans and other community members most in need of the resource, as well as graduates of their program.

FreedomWorks staff and volunteers are in the process of moving from their former residence to the new campus. They are currently gutting the St. Olaf Residence as they prepare them for new inhabitants.

Cirien Saadeh