Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Outside prison walls

Program helps former inmates readjust to life

Sun staff writer
Shelter from the Storm, a new prison ministry program planned for Gainesville, had a ribbon-cutting on Nov. 3 at the northeast Gainesville house that will serve as a home for four men recently released from prison who have dedicated themselves to a Christian lifestyle. Esther Bruce, from left, program Director Jeffery Cobb and Maxine Bethea prepare for the day by cleaning house. JOHN MORAN/The Gainesville Sun


It wouldn't be a permanent home, but organizers hope former prison inmates will be able to find a temporary shelter in a single-story house tucked away in one northeast Gainesville neighborhood.

The house would be part of a program called the Shelter from the Storm, created to offer ex-convicts a place to live while helping them find a job, earn a high school diploma and, basically, learn how to live outside prison walls.

Organizers still are working to complete the idea, sponsored by the Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church at 740 NE 21st St. in Gainesville. The Rev. Tony Taylor said he plans to talk with city employees about meeting requirements to open the shelter.

Program Director Jeffery Cobb said, "I think it's a blessing to have a house like this because you're easing back in society. If I didn't have the rules, the structure, the discipline, where would I be?"

Like the men who would occupy the house, Cobb, 40, is a former inmate. Originally from Miami, he had a history of drugs that landed him in and out of jails and prisons.

More than four years ago, Cobb was released from prison. Instead of heading south, however, he stayed in the area and went to live at the House of Hope off E. University Avenue, a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian program that started in the late 1990s and offers housing and support to former inmates who must follow strict rules that enforce curfews and require church attendance.

Cobb became that program's first graduate. Afterward, he stayed in town, remained active in his church and, he says, was given a mission by God to start another program like the one that helped him.

"I believe that God called me to do this work because I can relate to them," Cobb said.

Meetings between Cobb, church members and the church's prison ministry group culminated with the church renting a house on NE 20th Place near the intersection of NE 23rd Avenue and NE 15th Street.

Organizers' plans would include housing Cobb and a small number of men recently released from prison or jail at the home. Referrals for clients would come from churches and church workers in the prisons or jails. The program, however, would not accept inmates convicted of sex crimes.

Life outside prison

The men would live in the home for up to six months. In that time, the program would help them find a job, offer them an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and encourage them to save money so they can support themselves when they leave. Mornings would start with prayer. Residents would be required to participate in some church activities, do volunteer work, perform chores around the house and meet a 10 p.m. curfew. The church and donations will support the program, Cobb said. But the men who stay at the house and have a job also would be asked to make donations to help pay for their room, food and clothing.
Shelter from the Storm Director Jeffery Cobb, left, greets the Rev. Tony A. Taylor of Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church at the northeast Gainesville house. JOHN MORAN/The Gainesville Sun


Taylor said the structured, family environment will help former inmates adjust to life outside an institutional setting and discourage them from returning to a criminal lifestyle. And, he said, it will encourage others to give them a chance.

The shelter's organizers also are looking for the acceptance of their neighbors.

Taylor said the program's coordinators canvassed the area and have talked with some residents about their plans.

"Most of them are very familiar with what we are doing here. They've been very receptive," Taylor said.

Helen Daniel, who lives near the shelter, said she's willing to give it a chance. "When I first thought about it, I was, 'No, no, no, I have kids.' Then, on the other hand, they have to move somewhere."

But, she said, she has heard of a few residents who decided to leave since the shelter, which looks like other family homes along the street, made plans to move in.

Matt Parson, who lives next door to the shelter, said he doesn't have a problem with it and thinks the concept is "a good thing." However, he said, the group's plans for the house have brought more traffic and vehicles to the area, sometimes creating parking problems. First and foremost, he said, this is a family neighborhood with a lot of children who play in the area. "They kind of moved into our scene," he said.

Inmates increasing

But, with Florida's large prison population, something needs to be done to help former inmates adjust to life outside prison and avoid past mistakes, say the program's organizers.

Florida's prison population now stands at more than 72,000 men and women, Department of Corrections reports show. The number has steadily increased over the past five years from 64,333 in 1996 to 71,233 in 2000. In the 2000-01 fiscal year, 26,805 were released from state prisons.

Debbie Buchanan, a DOC spokeswoman, said these types of programs fill a need among former inmates who have no one to turn to when they leave prison.

"If they don't have help, then those programs are definitely needed," Buchanan said. "People have to have a place to live."

DOC gives released inmates $100, a set of clothes and a one-way, in-state bus ticket. It also offers Project Reconnect, a program that provides offenders who have received a general equivalency diploma or vocational certificate with job placement assistance upon release from prison. In addition, inmates participate in a release plan where the DOC tries to help those who have no place to stay after prison find a home.

Many former inmates released from prison essentially are on their own, often returning to the community where they were first convicted. Unless they are placed on supervised release, DOC has no resources to follow up on where former inmates report they will be living.

Taylor said, "I think that one of the things we really were concerned about is to really send a message that more individual organizations, in particular churches that can, need to get involved."

To promote the idea, program organizers are sending letters to other Seventh-day Adventist churches in the state urging them to start similar programs.

"This is something we can accomplish in each and every community," said James Simon, a member of Shelter from the Storm's board.

Maxine Bethea, who works with the church's prison ministry program, said, "It's our responsibility as Christians to house them, not just teach them."

For more information about the program, call (352) 336-7462.


Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or

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