Jason Seffl walked out of Stillwater prison in June and straight into FreedomWorks, a faith-based nonprofit that runs a Minneapolis home and support services for men like him.
After 16 years in and out of prison for theft, robbery and drugs, Seffl is reinventing himself: Running his own restaurant ventilation cleaning company, volunteering in the community and paying rent to FreedomWorks for a place to live.
“They were willing to give me a chance and accepted me right from Stillwater,” said Seffl, 39. “It’s giving me a chance to become the man I need to be.”
Hundreds of Minnesotans leave prison each year anxious to restart their lives, but then struggle to find housing or employment due to their criminal records. FreedomWorks is one of many nonprofits that aim to help with the transition — and it’s expanding from a 15-bed building it recently sold in north Minneapolis to a remodeled nursing home campus that could one day serve as many as 180 men and women. But even as there’s growing community and political awareness that offenders often need some extra help, those services aren’t always welcome next door.
Some neighbors in north Minneapolis are pushing back against FreedomWorks’ proposal, worried the new campus could concentrate too many men with criminal pasts in an area already struggling with crime. Their comments swayed the Minneapolis Planning Commission, which postponed granting the permit FreedomWorks needs to start moving men into the new building.
“I am supportive of reducing recidivism and I am also supportive of making sure ex-offenders have places to live,” neighbor and former Minneapolis City Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee said at the commission meeting. “What I am not in support of is the heavy concentration and the benevolency that north Minneapolis has to continue to have when these projects should be dispersed throughout the community.”
The new FreedomWorks campus, at Emerson and 30th avenues N., will serve people leaving prison, veterans and others at risk of homelessness. FreedomWorks Executive Director George Lang said the re-entry program for men leaving prison will be limited to 30. Lang admits that the organization hasn’t done a good job sharing its story with the neighbors, and it’s hosting an open house and food drive on Oct. 18 to make amends.
Larger national debate
Neighbors’ mixed feelings over FreedomWorks’ expansion point to a larger national debate over crime, punishment and the consequences of having the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. There are 2.3 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and an additional 4.5 million either on probation or parole, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, Mass.
Electronic records mean there’s no hiding past mistakes. “Zero tolerance” policies when it comes to housing and jobs are turning criminal offenses into life sentences, said Gina Evans, vice president of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.
“In a job market with only a 2 percent unemployment rate, people are having a hard time finding work because people won’t give them a second chance,” said Evans, community outreach director at Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.
The coalition, made up of dozens of nonprofit member organizations and individuals, advocates for laws and policies that create “meaningful opportunities to live, work, and grow as people after serving their debts to society.”
“It’s our duty to help these people out and get them a place where they can fully participate in society and reach their full potential,” said Pete Sutter, president of the coalition and a project supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Later this month, the coalition and the Center for Justice and Law at Hamline University will co-host a first-ever conference called Collateral Consequences: Life After Conviction. One of its speakers is Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who said issues around criminal justice reform and resources after release have started to gain bipartisan support.
He’s supported several initiatives to provide more treatment and training for people in and after prison, including the new “Ban the Box” law that prevents employers from asking about criminal history on the initial job application. He said support for this kind of reform is growing in both parties — and he also understands the fear and frustration of neighbors.
“If we don’t have areas to train, treat and heal people, that just means those individuals are going without those services, but are most likely still in your community,” Zerwas said. “That is the less desirable alternative.”
‘There is real concern’
FreedomWorks bought the vacant nursing home and attached assisted living facility on Emerson Avenue N. for $2.5 million. Crews have removed piles of old medical equipment, soiled mattresses and debris, and refreshed the building as studio and one-bedroom apartments with shared common space. Residents will be expected to pay about $400 a month in rent as they work through the six- to 12-month re-entry program.
But neighbors say the plans caught them off guard.
“They never told us who they were or what they planned to do with the property,” said Diana Hawkins, executive director of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, which is across the street from the campus. “It is still not clear. … There is a real concern.”
Leaders of FreedomWorks, which was founded in 2003 by men leading Bible study at Lino Lakes prison, said they’re serious about their mission — and have almost 15 years’ experience after operating the smaller facility they sold on Penn Avenue N.
“God has repurposed these men,” said Lang, who also has a prison record, for offenses including drugs and illegal possession of a gun.
Eventually, he said, FreedomWorks would like to create a building maintenance apprenticeship program and a culinary program at the campus industrial kitchen. The organization already has weekly fellowship meetings and counseling.
“What FreedomWorks is doing — having everything under one roof — is [the] best-case scenario for clients coming into the community,” said Evans, of Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge.
Melvin Broom, 50, who arrived at FreedomWorks in September 2016 after serving time for a felony assault, admits he was initially skeptical of transitional housing and surprised by FreedomWorks, which requires structure and accountability, but also treats men with dignity.
“This place has been a blessing in my life,” said Broom, who now works as the nonprofit’s assistant housing manager. “It’s not a flop house.”
Still, he knows neighbors are wary.
“I get it,” Broom said. “I understand completely, but when they’ve seen the program and been around the people in the program, their minds will be changed.”