The state hopes to open a transitional home for juvenile offenders in Westbrook, but a change in the city’s zoning code has stalled that plan.
The South Portland-based nonprofit Opportunity Alliance has contracted with the Maine Department of Corrections to run the program and bought a single-family home in a residential neighborhood in Westbrook. But neighbors balked at the prospect of living near young men coming out of lockup. Then the building failed an inspection for an occupancy permit last week, and a newly adopted ordinance blocks transitional homes from that part of the city.
The state and Opportunity Alliance have not yet decided whether to move or appeal the zoning decision, but both said the project will not be abandoned.
“It’s too important to the residents of Long Creek and also to the state of Maine to not move forward,” said Joseph Fitzpatrick, commissioner for the Department of Corrections. “I think it’s a critically important program, and I am not going to be dissuaded.”
Called Project Rise, the transitional home is the second proposed in the city. Another nonprofit called the Transformation Project is working on a similar venture in downtown Westbrook. Fitzpatrick said these residential programs for reintegration are opening in other states as well.
“This is the trend that juvenile corrections has taken across the nation,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think you’re going to see more and more of that.”
Maine’s only youth correctional facility is Long Creek Youth Development Center, which has 180 beds. The top administrator resigned last month and the department is searching for a successor. Jeffrey D. Merrill’s announcement came after the facility’s first suicide in decades and an escape by three residents that ended in a car crash.
There is no reliable measure of a national recidivism rate for young offenders because each state operates its juvenile system differently.
In Maine, a study published in 2016 found more than a third of committed youths re-offended within a year of their release. Within two years, more than half re-offended. While some juveniles were slowly reintegrated into the community, the study did not find any evidence this reduces their chances of returning to a corrections facility.
In Massachusetts, a nonprofit called Straight Ahead does not offer housing for juveniles, but does provide job training at a cafe, a caterer, a thrift shop and a silk-screening business. Barbara Picard, communications director for Straight Ahead, said only 17 percent of the participants in those programs committed another offense in a two-year period.
“This is really an enormous step for the state of Maine and certainly for the Department of Corrections,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s going to give the residents of Long Creek an opportunity to step outside of the facility and into the community to establish themselves with support and intervention.”
The state awarded the contract for a transitional home to Opportunity Alliance last year. The contract will cost $300,000 for the first three years, with an option to renew for additional years. The nonprofit purchased a four-bedroom home at 6 State St. in Westbrook for $310,000 in December, according to property records.
Project Rise would house up to six young men 18 to 21 years old. Eligible residents would have completed their high school education and must interview for the program. Juvenile offenders convicted of aggravated sexual offenses or arson would not be accepted.
Residents would live in the house for an average of six months under 24-hour supervision. They would pursue further education or work, learn life skills and seek future housing. The goal is to reduce the chance the young man would re-offend.
“The main problems we are trying to solve are youth who are otherwise able to leave the facility but they do not have a safe living environment to go to,” said Wendi DuBois, vice president of child and family resiliency at Opportunity Alliance. “If you don’t have your basic needs and stable housing it is really, really hard to do all these other things asked of them at their age.”
When Opportunity Alliance bought property in Westbrook, the city’s code of ordinances did not make any mention of transitional homes, so the nonprofit was not required to seek hearings with the planning or zoning boards. Jim Gemmell, vice president of communications for Opportunity Alliance, said representatives from Project Rise sent a flyer to nearby homes in January and knocked on doors in the neighborhood in March.
Neighbors have disputed this, saying they knew very little about the project and had not been contacted. In an attempt to alleviate their concerns, Opportunity Alliance hosted a community meeting in March and scheduled a second for April.
“We have been doing residential programming for a long time, almost 50 years,” Gemmell said. “We take our responsibility of being a good neighbor very seriously.”
Meanwhile, City Planner Jennie Francheschi drafted new zoning definitions to include transitional homes in Westbrook’s code. The new language only allows transitional homes and boarding homes in the narrow city center district, which does not include State Street. It also requires anyone interested in opening these programs to appear at a public hearing before the planning board.
“We’ve recently seen an increase in these types of group homes coming forward,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said in March. “There’s a lot of different categories developing because of the need.”
When the Westbrook City Council voted to accept the new restrictions April 3, several Project Rise neighbors said they worried about safety on their quiet dead-end street.
“It just screwed our life up entirely,” Mike Fusco of 18 State St. said. “Nobody came and asked us, are you happy with this?”
Matt Barker of 20 State St. said he would buy security cameras to watch over the property where his family and his tenants live.
“This is going to be a major impact on our neighborhood,” Barker said. “We would like to see more notification given to the neighborhood in advance.”
No representatives from the state or Opportunity Alliance spoke at the council meeting. Fitzpatrick said later a transitional program is a more secure setting for offenders who are leaving incarceration.
“We can certainly keep both kids and adults behind a secure wall until their release,” Fitzpatrick said. “Ultimately they get released, and they go back to these same communities. To release them with ongoing supervision and ongoing support is much safer.”
Two days after that vote, Westbrook officials inspected the prospective home of Project Rise on State Street to issue an occupancy permit. The building failed. An April 6 letter from city officials lists at least 13 deficiencies, which include problems with smoke detectors and emergency exits.
Because the building didn’t pass inspection, Bryant said, Project Rise would be subject to the restrictions in the new ordinance – and barred from opening on State Street. That decision was not influenced by the opposition from neighbors, he said.
“Had they passed, our position would have been that they completed their work before the enactment of the new ordinance,” Bryant said.
Opportunity Alliance could appeal the decision to the Westbrook Zoning Board. Fitzpatrick said he is trying to understand all the options before making a decision.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation,” Fitzpatrick said. “When we should be excited about opening this residence, instead we are struggling and stifled by something that was in my opinion a dysfunctional response.”
In downtown Westbrook, the Transformation Project is still on track to open its own transitional home for juvenile offenders.
While the nonprofit is still working to obtain its building permit, the address is within the city center district and the building is zoned for mixed use. Eventually, the Transformation Project will finish renovations at 907 Main St. that would house and employ youths recently released from Long Creek. The first floor will house DJ’s Cafe – a bakery, catering business, performance space and coffee shop staffed by young people coming out of lockup. The second floor will be supervised housing for up to 10 men between the ages of 18 to 25. Executive Director Ken Hawley said he is still in the process of securing the building permit for 907 Main St., but hopes to open in late summer or early fall. That project is seeking donations and is not state funded.
“These young people we work with truly do have potential to make it if they have an opportunity,” he said.
Hawley said he wants to see more momentum for these transitional programs in Maine.
“I’m disappointed about what happened over on State Street,” Hawley said. “I think we don’t have enough opportunities and transition housing for these youth. We’re only setting ourselves up as a state to see more recidivism, more crime, more tax dollars spent that aren’t necessary.”
Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: