DEL CITY — When Del City residents showed up in force in late June to protest a local church's plan to convert its building into a halfway house, they were recreating a scene that has played out numerous times in cities throughout the nation.
The show of force by about 200 residents was enough to sway the Del City Planning Commission, which denied a private company's request for a zoning change that would've allowed a 200-bed halfway house to relocate from south Oklahoma City.
“I feel that there's really no benefit to bring this into the community,” Planning Commissioner David Martin said.
Other attending, including longtime resident Don West, made similar comments during the planning commission's June 28 meeting.
“I thought I would live and die here,” said West, a 56-year resident of Del City. “I don't want to leave, but I might have to.”
The staff at Howard Memorial Baptist Church, which is for sale due to a dwindling congregation, was hoping the flood of inmates would bolster its numbers and help it survive.
Andrew Mericle, the church's pastor, also would serve as chaplain to the halfway house. He claims the move isn't intended to profit his struggling church.
The city council will decide the issue on Monday.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said the uproar in Del City isn't a surprise to those familiar with halfway houses.
“People tend to freak out when they hear they're going to build a halfway house, or a prison for that matter, in their area,” Massie said. “It's normal. It's expected.”
Indeed, other cities have seen similar protests and uproars play out when a halfway house company tries to move into new territory.
In April, the zoning board in Scranton, Pa., unanimously rejected plans for an apartment building to be converted into a halfway house with a 112-bed capacity.
The inmates would have between three and six months left on their sentences.
Doctors, dentists and other businesses showed up at the meeting, telling board members they weren't happy with the plan.
Board member Steven Kochis offered a familiar refrain under the circumstances.
“Here's my concern,” Kochis said during the meeting. “We have 110 people coming out of a prison and ... into the community. There's a real security concern here.”
When those seeking to have the halfway house turned into a reality tried to ease the concerns of the protesters in the audience, they were greeted with an “outburst of laughter,” according to a newspaper's coverage of the meeting.
Four days ago, the zoning board in Fillmore Township, Mich., went a step further.
After rejecting an existing halfway house's expansion plans due to “safety concerns for children and neighborhood property values,” the local newspaper reported, the board added new language to the township's zoning ordinance intended to limit where similar facilities can be located.
Again, reported comments revealed a similar fear.
“I'm thinking one home is enough in our township,” said Anne Geurink, who lives near the existing halfway house. “I live in their backyard and I have kids. ... I don't think we need another house here.”
For Mericle, pastor of Howard Memorial Baptist Church, such concerns go against his core beliefs.
“Our reason for existence is to minister the presence of God to the community and to the people that need spiritual help,” Mericle said. “If we can help Center Point and that endeavor, the church is serving its mission. We are improving the community that we live in.”
Staff Writer Olivia Ingle