When Kathryn Matlack’s organization Freedom Path LLC bought a house in Rockland last month to help a rotating group of three former inmates re-enter society and stay sober, the idea was to have it running by the middle of this month. To her surprise, the transitional home plan sparked a major controversy over what kinds of shared living facilities the city should allow without review and how much say residents should have in choosing their neighbors.

Apart from a written statement outlining the philosophy and broad strokes of Unity House, as the home would be known, Matlack has been silent throughout the debates between neighbors of 215 Talbot Avenue, who fear that having ex-convicts for neighbors will threaten their safety and/or property values, and residents who, like Matlack, think the city should be welcoming toward former criminals who have served their time and are vulnerable to ending up back behind bars.

Rockland City Council gave preliminary approval to a zoning amendment that would require city review for group homes but walked it back a step after residents raised concerns that the wording, which among other things redefined the word “family” in narrow terms, could have far-ranging unintended consequences. A second reading and public hearing on Amendment 14, as it is known, is scheduled for Monday, August 12.

The Free Press talked to Matlack by phone on July 10 to learn more about her plan and fill in some of the missing pieces. Some questions were provided to her in advance by email. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did this idea come from, for a transitional home in Rockland? 

Unity House was first inspired from the mentoring work 

I did at the re-entry center in Belfast. I met many individuals up there who were about to be released and had no place to go. They could go back to their families and old friends but they knew this would lead them to basically the same result. They needed a fresh start.

In Belfast they had forged relationships with employers and community members, so [the city was] attractive to the guys coming out of the re-entry center there. 

Basically the same scenario exists in Rockland. Just in Bolduc Correctional Facility (located in Warren) alone there are around 220 inmates. It’s set up for men that are either at the minimum or what they call “community” level of security. A lot of these guys are in Rockland and already working for employers in Rockland. There’s Fisher [Engineering] and other good-sized employers that hire these men, and jobs are typically available to them when they are released. What I discovered is that the majority of these men are in recovery from substance use disorder. They need a safe and sober place to live, and many are not able to find a bed in a safe and sober living environment. The reason most people reoffend is because they end up using again.

Does Rockland have similar homes?

Yes, they do. There are two houses in Rockland; The Friends House and Freedom House both have similar situations to what we are looking to do. They house people in recovery from substance use disorders as well as people that are post-incarceration.

Is that an established model to have people who are in recovery living together?

Yeah, it’s called a “recovery residence” or a “sober home.”

When did you start mentoring with Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast?

2014.

Have you done other related work or anything like Unity House?

I’ve been a volunteer at Maine State Prison for the last two and a half years. Also, I was involved with the opening of The Friends House in Rockland that the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition started. I was on the housing committee as well as the board of directors. The other factor is, I have a volunteer who intends to assist with the house management, and she brings with her 26 years as a federal probation officer.

Is she the one who would live there?

No. That’s someone separate.

What will the person who is living there do?

They’re helping maintain our policies and procedures, and making sure our residents are following the rules.

Do you have specific people in mind for tenants, or how would they come to Unity House?

They can be referred to us through self-referral, friends, family, case managers or probation officers. Tenants will be in active recovery from a substance use disorder and I want to make sure that their privacy is protected and it’s only up to them if they want to share [personal] information.

Do you have specific people in mind at this point?

No.

You talked about other homes in Rockland. Are there similar numbers of transitional homes in other communities?

I don’t know. I haven’t studied the numbers, per community. I do know that Ira [Mandel of Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition] has quite a waiting list. That’s basically an indication that there’s more needed. And I’ve heard that personally, as well.

It seems like a big step to go from volunteering to opening a home like this. Does it feel like that to you?

No, it’s just like everything I’ve been doing has been building toward this. Yeah, it’s a big endeavor, but I also feel like I have people in place, and I’ve been involved with people post-incarceration, or that are incarcerated, and people in recovery.

Would this be considered a “halfway house,” and is that a term that gets used?

It is not considered a halfway house. It is a recovery residence that will include a focus on providing housing for men coming out of correctional institutions, who are in recovery from a substance use disorder.

Is that a change of terminology or are there still things that are considered halfway houses, and this is something different?

I have no further comment on that.

The house at 215 Talbot Ave. was purchased through Freedom Path, LLC. What is that organization and how is it financed?

I’m not comfortable with answering that, but residents will be paying rent.

Have you had conversations with the state Department of Corrections, or do you have established relationships with specific corrections facilities?

We’re going to make sure the case managers within the Maine corrections facilities know about our residence.

Any direct connections with Restorative Justice Project?

No connections. It would be ideal for these men to have mentors. But mentors can come from many different areas.

How would you deal with a troublesome tenant?

We will definitely have policies and procedures in place to handle these situations.

I feel like I’m vetting your plan, but my understanding is that the city code doesn’t require any kind of vetting for this project. Do you feel like it’s fair that there’s a public debate about Unity House?

What I would like to say is, I genuinely did not foresee the degree and extent of opposition and hostility from the neighborhood. These men are interested in getting their lives back, going to work, getting recovery support and being part of a community. So, it may take some time for the neighbors to see this for themselves. Regarding your question [sent by email] about property values, I think there could be many factors in lowering property values, and I’m not comfortable commenting on that, nor am I qualified.

It was always my intention to notify the neighbors about Unity House and its mission. I was planning to reach out before we began accepting residents. I honestly did not see the need to notify neighbors before we purchased the house. After learning of the neighbors’ concerns, within 48 hours, I sent them information on the house, then I spent many hours setting up a facilitated meeting only to have the neighbors cancel it at the last minute. We finally got the whole thing set up. It was going to happen on the weekend [of June 22], and on Friday night, they cancelled.

When you say “they,” were the neighbors acting as a group through a spokesperson?

Yes, back and forth through her and the facilitator.

Do you have any idea how many neighbors that person was representing?

I don’t think I ever got a count.

Have any neighbors approached you who feel positively about Unity House?

No neighbors that I know of have come forward in support, but there have been neighbors that were initially conversing that have gone quiet. So, I don’t know if that means they’re in support and they’re just not willing to speak out. I’m not sure.

Why did you choose Rockland and 215 Talbot Avenue?

As I said, many of these men coming out of Bolduc have already forged relationships here [and had employment opporutnities]. In addition to that, there’s access — walking, biking distance — to the University of Maine at Rockland, the Career Center, many different employers, a downtown area, grocery stores. So, it’s accessible to all those things.

Was Rockland your first choice or did you look at other cities and towns?

Rockland.

Are there certain types of crimes that people were incarcerated for that wouldn’t be considered for Unity House?

We are not accepting sex offenders.

Any other categories?

That’s all I’m willing to speak about at this point.

Is there anything else that’s been missing from the public conversation?

I think this is where the greatest need is, for people to have access to safe and sober and affordable housing. And people coming out of incarceration with a substance use disorder, it’s hard to find housing.

Hard because there’s not housing, or because they have substance use disorders and that’s a strike against them?

It’s two strikes against them coming out of incarceration and then [being] in recovery. And obviously affordable housing is hard for more than just these groups. If we don’t want these people to end up back in incarceration, we need to step forward and do something about it.