“I think it’s a slippery road here to go down and separate these men as a separate class of people, and say they need approval to come to the city of 

Rockland, or we need approval to help them get a new chance.… These are people just like you and me.… They’re not ‘those people.’”

— Jake Barbour, cofounder of L.I.F.E. Ministries, which runs a sober re-entry home on Limerock Street for men returning from jail and prison; Rockland City Hall, June 24

A three-person (plus one house manager) sober re-entry home named Unity House has been proposed to occupy a house on Talbot Avenue in Rockland. From what we understand, neighbors discovered this from a real estate agent; several reacted with alarm and outrage. Attempting to assuage neighbors’ concerns, Rockland City Council unanimously passed, in first reading, an ordinance amendment seemingly intended to stop or slow Unity House by redefining what “family” means for zoning purposes. The ordinance, if ultimately approved, would require that roommates cook together and share living expenses. 

We believe this ordinance amendment is regressive, discriminatory, and ill-judged. Furthermore, we are appalled by the rhetoric used by some of those opposed to the Talbot Avenue project: “allowing predators to live among us,” “property values,” “those people,” “not in keeping with the current character of our neighborhood.” Though we respect the deep concern involved, some of this rhetoric resembles the worst fear-mongering we’ve been fed for generations about “prisoners” and “criminals” — and it also closely resembles the rhetoric used to enforce classist, racist, and discriminatory policies such as redlining and exclusionary zoning.

Sober re-entry homes are desperately needed in the face of the interconnected crises of poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, and the substance abuse epidemic. Carrie Sullivan, executive director of Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast (RJP), says that while RJP currently has no formal connection to Unity House, they want to do whatever they can to support its success. Sullivan states, “One thing that seems to be getting missed about the Unity House is that it’s just as much of a sober/drug-free house as it is a re-entry house. Most of us probably know someone who has been impacted by drug addiction. People in recovery trying to rebuild their lives need a place to live and they need our support.”

One way to decide whether a particular zoning policy is discriminatory and classist is to ask: What would happen to a wealthier person in the same situation who owns her home? In the case of the proposed Talbot Avenue project, three ex-inmates will be living together alongside one house manager. Why would we treat this situation any differently than we would treat a wealthy homeowner and her family living with a live-in helper, nurse, or nanny? Why did the City Council unanimously vote in March to allow artists to live in Lincoln Street Center, but now votes to make it harder for ex-inmates to find housing? We have an answer: Class. And unfounded fear.

There’s been talk over the past few weeks about recidivism and the supposed special danger posed by former inmates due to their statistical likelihood to return to prison. The truth is that many of these returns to prison or jail are due to minor, nonviolent probation violations (like a single beer in the fridge!), and that the prison-industrial complex has financial and other incentives for keeping people locked up. As to people’s fears of violent offenders, a March 2019 Prison Policy Initiative research report states, “people convicted of sexual assault and homicide are actually among the least likely to reoffend after release.... people convicted of any violent offense are less likely to be re-arrested in the years after release than those convicted of property, drug, or public-order offenses.”

Then there’s a hyper-local example. Jake and Tanja Barbour have been operating a sober re-entry home in Rockland for five years. At the June 24 City Council meeting, Jake stated, “I know you guys are probably nervous, scared, but it will not be detrimental to your neighborhood. It hasn’t been in our experience.” The reality is that we are surrounded by people who have been incarcerated, but we often don’t know about it due to stigma, lack of substantive interaction with our neighbors, and the fact that wealthier people often tend to live in insulating bubbles of privilege. That’s why this is at its heart a question of class — which is fundamentally about who gets to have mobility, access, choice, or in other words: freedom.

The Rockland we want to live in welcomes recovery and re-entry homes right in our backyards. Let’s walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Important dates at Rockland City Hall: Wed., July 17, 5:30 p.m., Zoning Board of Appeals hearing; Wed., July 24, 5:30 p.m., City Council workshop on ordinance amendment; Mon., August 12, 6 p.m., final council hearing and vote.

As always, we love to hear from you: limecitylove@protonmail.com.