Not in My Backyard

Finding the right neighbourhood for a halfway house is difficult—but not impossible.

By Janice Paskey

By just about any standard, this community meeting attracted more than its fair share of officials. Sitting behind a long table were police officers, City of Calgary planning representatives, John Howard Society staff, a psychiatrist specializing in sexual offenders and Ward 8 alderman Madeleine King. Indeed, there were so many “experts” telling the residents of Calgary’s Scarboro and Sunalta neighbourhoods that a proposed halfway house was safe, some locals started to worry for the first time. Scarboro resident Kate Morisset says she believes in redemption, but wanted to be better informed. What she heard and saw worried her. “I thought, there’s too much ammunition,” she says. The halfway house’s advocates seemed to be “protesting” too much. “The only reason they did this is because it [would’ve been] harmful to my community.” Others quickly shared her reaction. 

It was March of 2006, and the John Howard Society was planning to move its halfway house for men to Sunalta. The agency was clearly under duress: to make way for the Calgary Stampede’s latest expansion, the City of Calgary had expropriated rows of small postwar homes in Victoria Park, including JHS’s Bedford House, which for more than two decades had been a transitional home for recovering criminals. The City paid the society $750,000 for Bedford, put them on a lease and told them to find a new place.

Easier said than done. In Calgary, real estate comes two ways—expensive and scarce. John Howard Society executive director Gordon Sand knew this. Fortuitously (so he thought) the society had bought a piece of land in Sunalta, in the inner city beside the highway-like Crowchild Trail, right before land prices escalated further. Sand thought that with the blessing of the City’s planning department and the community, the society would move there and rebuild. 

However, word quickly spread that 32 parolees from federal penitentiaries were on their way. Sunalta and Scarboro are neighbouring communities, but they’re fundamentally different. Sunalta is gritty inner city, a mix of homes, apartment buildings, churches and stores, some parts gentrified, others dilapidated. Some 85 per cent of residents live below the median Calgary income. Scarboro, by contrast, is an affluent residential enclave. The Sunalta School (in Scarboro) is one of the top-ranked in the province. It’s the type of community where residents have successfully closed the community to cut-through traffic, and getting in and out is a laborious affair. This is where Morisset lives with her husband, where her two daughters attend school.

Years ago, I worked at McGill University when Morisset was student body president. I watched her stand up in front of the university’s board of governors and argue passionately against proposed tuition increases. Later I heard she’d gone to law school and then moved to Calgary with her husband.

So I wasn’t surprised to hear that she stood up at that meeting to ask alderman Madeleine King why, if the halfway house was such a good neighbour (as the panel was insisting), the City wasn’t keeping it on the Stampede grounds, where the parolees could be closer to work opportunities, hop on the LRT, exercise at a local gym and be more easily supervised.

Bedford represents a larger problem. Throughout the city, there’s barely been a boo about taking away precious affordable housing from Victoria Park. There was no outcry for Bedford House. After all, a houseful of criminals on parole are hardly a sympathetic bunch. Instead, expensive new condos are set to go up across Victoria Park. An historic school is being used for a façade for one condo, and this development is being lauded.

King told Morisset that Bedford House was “inappropriate” for Stampede’s out-of-town visitors. After all, sex offenders are among Bedford’s residents. Upon hearing this, Morisset says she “mentally dug in.” “I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m going to pour my heart and soul into this. King doesn’t want a halfway house [near] our guests. If those inmates are too dangerous for our guests to the city, then they’re too dangerous for my children’.” 

I’d watched Morisset lose the tuition battle to McGill’s board of governors, but now she had children. This fight was going to be different. 

Halfway houses are a fact of life in Canada. Our criminal justice system gives about 3,000 prisoners conditional releases each year so that they can serve their sentences in the community, under supervision. Most agree that this arrangement eases the transition and keeps us all safer in the long run. It’s also a lot cheaper to keep parolees in halfway houses, where staff earn $13–$18 an hour, than in prisons where unionized staff pull in $49,000–$68,000 yearly with full benefits and pensions.

The administration of halfway houses is shouldered by the federal government through community correctional centres and by not-for-profits such as the Salvation Army, Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society. In Alberta, the federal government provides $7-million yearly to various agencies to run 16 halfway houses in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Red Deer. Many of these houses are in mixed residential/commercial communities and most are close to downtown.

Bedford House is well suited to Victoria Park, says Gordon Sand. “It’s been a wonderful location,” he says of the site they now lease from the City. “We’ve been here for 22 years and had a good relationship with the community.” 

The society argues that criminals in the community are not dangerous and that reoffending is rare; they claim that more than 80 per cent will complete their parole. According to Corrections Canada, of 3,000 parolees released into the community every year, roughly 22 will commit a violent crime, 130 will commit a non-violent crime and 380 will violate conditions of their release. Some people, such as forensic psychologist Steve Wormith at the University of Saskatchewan, think reoffence rates are under-reported. Such is the public’s suspicion that even Corrections Canada faced a bitter battle with the community after it located a parole office across from an elementary school in Ottawa. The office must move by 2009.

While all kinds of offenders go to halfway houses, the sticking point for many communities is sex offenders. Of the approximately 365 halfway house inhabitants in Alberta, 43 are sex offenders. 

How can a community be persuaded to accept recovering criminals into their midst? In Red Deer, it was by allowing community members to help choose house residents. The Horizon House executive director at the time, George Atkey, spent considerable time in the downtown community where the halfway home was to locate.

He also established an advisory committee, as have other John Howard agencies. “I tried to get across to the community that [this] is a crime prevention strategy, that the halfway house make[s] them safer,” he says. He knows how public opinion can catch like wildfire. When a local newspaper reported on his visit to a potential site, the community began rallying against the halfway house before Atkey was ready to advocate for it.

Touchiness about living next to criminals cannot be underestimated. So Atkey also promised two things: the advisory committee, including community members, could assist in selecting who came in, and the halfway house would be located near a police station. The proposed building helped, too. The Park Hotel, a defunct strip bar, dates from 1902. By almost anyone’s standard, a halfway house would be a kind of revitalization. 

And when it opened in 2002, it was. The halfway house was called Horizon House; the entire building was renamed Park Place. Currently, retail occupies the first floor: Thai Garden restaurant, Housewarming gift shop, La Tienda Latina and the Brain Injury Society of Alberta. A new office building is going up next door. Though no one from the Red Deer Downtown Association or the RCMP would comment about Horizon House, they haven’t exactly publicly criticized it either. 

Horizon House has several unique elements: it houses both men and women and has a handicapped suite. It won’t take more than three sex offenders at one time, and no predatory offenders at all (they’re considered too dangerous). It will not take anyone who has tried to commit suicide. “The main thing is getting the community to understand that if they have concerns, they’d rather know where they live and see the parolees than have them live next to them unsupervised,” says current executive director Geoff Smith. Horizon has a 6:00 pm mandatory attendance and a 10:00 pm curfew. Horizon’s promise to allow the community to choose its residents has fallen by the wayside; after two years, few community members had expressed reservations. Horizon’s volunteer board of directors still includes community members, however.

All is not totally calm. There was one incident a few years ago when a Horizon House resident robbed a bank. Smith called it a “gentle” robbery. “He was having trouble integrating, and I think he wanted to go back to prison,” Smith says. “He had a butter knife and no one was hurt.” 

In order to move into Sunalta, the John Howard Society needed the City of Calgary to give it a development permit—which it received in August 2006, after meetings with some community groups but only one major community consultation. Executive director Sand had helped locate Berkana House, the Elizabeth Fry Society’s halfway house for women, years earlier. He was unprepared for the response this time. The community fought back. Did it ever.

The community raised at least $35,000 (opponents say it was much more) and hired two experts to fight the halfway house. The first was Chris Davis, a former City of Calgary lawyer who knew well the ins and outs of making an appeal. The second was “star witness” Kim Rossmo, a Canadian professor at Texas State University known for “geographic profiling” (or figuring out where criminals are likely to strike).

“At first, the City thought [the residents] were just NIMBYs… then they realized the scope and scale of the project was wrong,” says Davis. He helped the community organize its arguments. Their key one was that the proposed building—several storeys, more than 30 beds—was simply too big for the community and far too close to two elementary schools. There were also other special care facilities in the area: a 150-bed drop-in centre (technically in another community), a women’s addiction treatment centre and an Aboriginal resource centre with 85 children. “Has the community not already done its part?” he argued. Davis lined up the legal ducks and got ready for the appeal board, something the average citizen (or even the average group) would be hard pressed to execute.  

Then came the big gun. Rossmo hired five researchers to do a literature review to take to the appeal board. Rossmo hammered away at John Howard’s research, challenging everything from their re-offence statistics to how the society collected its data. He argued that the parolees were dangerous, and that the proposed house’s placement at the edge of the community meant they would have to walk past homes, parks and schools to get to bus routes; they’d be too close to children. At least 5 per cent would reoffend while living in the community, he argued, and some 10–68 per cent of parolees would return to reoffend after leaving the halfway house—after making a mental map of the Sunalta/Scarboro neighbourhoods. 

Sunalta School in Calgary's Scarboro.

Sunalta School in Calgary’s Scarboro.

Reflecting later, Rossmo outright accuses the JHS of lying on several fronts. “One of the things I found duplicitous was the use of certain terms,” he says. He argues that the JHS included homes for the mentally ill as halfway homes in its reoffence records. “I pulled up original reports and read them, and they were group homes,” he says. He also expressed concerns about the types of criminals coming to the community. “You don’t get into a Canadian federal penitentiary without doing something serious. The [society] was playing games with the recidivism rates. I’m a criminologist, this is what I do. You can’t bullshit me with statistics.” For its part, the JHS says it was caught off guard: what it thought was a planning issue became a full-on debate about justice and risk management.

The seed of fear took root. JHS director Gordon Sand shakes his head at the memory of the meeting. “It was a freak show,” he says. He recalls community members nodding their heads in agreement as Rossmo rolled through his list. On February 24, 2007, the City of Calgary Appeal Board ruled in favour of the community and refused to grant the development permit. Although their report termed Rossmo’s evidence “highly speculative,” it did note many of his concerns: the size of the halfway house, proximity to elementary schools, necessity of walking through the community to bus routes, and the presence of other special care facilities. It didn’t touch on the issue of recidivism, which seems very difficult to nail down.

There was immediate fallout. Alderman Madeleine King, a Stampede Board member who’d been in favour of moving the halfway house to Sunalta, was defeated in the next municipal election by former Scarboro Community Association president John Mar. “The process was completely wrong; they met with the community once,” Mar says. “We’ve totally set the bar for community associations on how to fight a planning issue.” Could they have done it without raising tens of thousands of dollars and hiring legal experts? “Probably not,” he admits.

Looking back, some lessons can be learned. The John Howard Society felt that since it was turfed out of its preferred location, the City of Calgary had an obligation to help it relocate. Scarboro/Sunalta residents felt the halfway house was a fait accompli, and this incited a “siege” mentality. Doug King, the chair of justice studies at Mount Royal College, supports the notion of halfway houses, but thinks agencies like JHS need to better consider their advocacy.

“The society [had a] low-key strategy in the initial planning phases,” he says. “It seemed that they were quite guarded about what they wanted to say about the new facility… This allowed a very organized and [well-] funded opposition to seize the initiative and mobilize the community. It didn’t help that the issue was being played out within the context of impending provincial and municipal elections in which one of the dominant concerns was crime and social disorder in Calgary.”

For their part, the John Howard Society is preparing a new communications strategy, a point by point defence to counter all of the arguments against its existence. It doesn’t want to be caught off guard again—though it thinks no amount of advocacy would have made a difference to the Sunalta/Scarboro situation. 

So where does that leave us? The John Howard Society owns a weedy piece of land in Sunalta. Bedford House is on borrowed time in Victoria Park. “We’re like the kid that no one wants to dance with,” JHS director Sand says. The agency is looking at a nearby site it had hoped to get from the beginning—in the same Victoria Park neighbourhood, facing train tracks and near a bus roundabout. The City owns the land but won’t sell it or make any other decision about it right now. Sand wonders whether the JHS might someday trade their Sunalta land for this parcel. There are few other options. The reality is that Calgary has one of the toughest housing markets in the nation. Prices have doubled in the last six years. Land costs are up. Construction costs continue to escalate. 

In 2007, Gordon Laird wrote a seminal report on homelessness for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation. He sees the fate of Bedford House as a footnote to the story of a lack of affordable housing in Calgary. Laird did an internship at the JHS years ago and was impressed with Bedford House. He thinks the discussion about any halfway house in Alberta needs to focus on both the lack of low-cost housing and on an important missed aspect of the discussion: the quality of the staff who supervise them. The skill of an $18-an-hour staff member can build bridges between—or divide—the halfway house and the community. The agencies that run halfway houses are also undervalued, he argues. 

“Halfway houses are necessary, and while concerns are justified given the background of some clients, the work of agencies like the JHS is often taken for granted,” Laird says. “The people in Canada’s prisons are disproportionately poor and Aboriginal, and housing affordability can be a major obstacle to reintegration. In helping bridge the housing gap, and in providing counselling and support, agencies like the JHS not only reduce incidence of crime and increase the security of our cities but save Canadians untold millions on correctional clients lost to reoffending, homelessness or mental health issues.”

John Rook is CEO of the Salvation Army Community Services, which has 13 low-risk parolees in a partial halfway house at its downtown Calgary Centre of Hope residence. He thinks institutional living is really not the way to go. “I’d do the whole thing differently for the low-risk parolees we serve,” he says. “I’d use the ‘housing first’ model, an exit-to-community model which has proven effective in England and the US. In this model, parolees live in their own apartments… Halfway houses take away people’s dignity; they’re very controlling with imposed structures… I think we’ve got a big problem with social exclusion; how we care for people who seem to be disaffected or disenfranchised tells a lot about society.” 

Maybe so. And yet parents just want to protect their kids, and those who’ve suffered sexual assault aren’t exactly sympathetic to the overall good of society when their pain is so fresh. 

In Scarboro, Sunalta School is again riding high in educational rankings. Kids run around and walk home in safety. Parents have greater peace knowing that some 30 ex-cons weren’t transferred to their neighbourhood. As the sun sets on Victoria Park, Bedford House awaits its fate.  

Janice Paskey is a faculty member at Mount Royal College and the mother of two school-aged boys. 


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