Not on my street 

Westside neighbors raise concerns over group home

Brook Blair walks down Sherwood Street on Missoula’s Westside pointing out the houses with young families. He and his wife, Molly, are about to have their second child, so Blair knows what to look for: dump trucks, forts and what Blair calls the “plastic explosion” of toys scattered across the yard.

“House right there is expecting a child,” he says, nodding his head. He indicates another. “One-year-old.” And another. “Two-year-old.”

This is a walk-to-school route, he says. There’s a park and an elementary school down the street. You can see the Bitterroot Gymnastic Studio from Blair’s porch. Around a corner, there’s a daycare center. “There’s five or six kids on that block,” he says. “Kids everywhere.”

There’s also the Victory House for Men, situated at the end of Sherwood Street, next to the Ceretana building. It’s a flat-front stucco house painted drab blue, quiet and unassuming. But it’s become a growing concern of neighborhood parents like Blair. Three of the 12 Victory House residents are registered sex offenders, and neighbors aren’t comfortable with the group home’s location and lack of supervision. The situation came to a head last month when the city negotiated an agreement that would prevent the Victory House from taking in more sex offenders, and ensured the three living there now would be out within a year.

Dan Lester says he created the Victory House because convicted violent and sex offenders, drug addicts and alcoholics deserve a second chance when they exit the state penal system. He offers them support, mostly through faith.

“Our idea was to take people that really wanted to change their lives and wanted to have a closer walk with Jesus,” Lester says. “That’s the number one thing we ask before anybody comes over to the house is ‘Do you truly want a closer walk with the lord Jesus’ … It’s my firm belief that that’s what’s going to cure people.”

Lester is a co-founder of the 3:16 Mission and former owner of the Toole Avenue Food Market. He opened the Victory House more than three years ago as a faith-based residence for up to 12 men. Residents at the Victory House lead a structured life under a signed contract. They live by a zero tolerance policy, pay $200 a month for rent and food, and attend three mandatory Bible classes every weekday. Lester maintains each is accountable to the others. Most have monthly meetings with parole officers, some with outside counselors as well. If you break the rules, you get the boot.

But enforced curfews do little to soothe neighbors. Brad Hash lives two doors down from the Victory House, and he and his wife are expecting their first child in December. The more he’s learned about the facility since moving into the neighborhood in June 2006, the more concerned he’s become.

“If it’s just housing alcoholics, you don’t want to set it right next to a 24-hour bar,” Hash says. “You don’t want to put the candy right out in front of the child and expect them not to be tempted.”

Lester says Victory House has responded to the neighborhood’s concerns. When Blair said he was worried about residents hanging out on the front stoop and smoking, Lester moved them into the backyard.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Lester says. “My goodness, I can understand people’s concern, but what’s the alternative? Everybody says, ‘Well, you’re doing good work but don’t do it in my neighborhood.’ But it has to be done in somebody’s neighborhood.”

The house on Sherwood was the only sure bet for Lester and his partners, Steve Moon and Don Godbey. Property owner Bear Stauss gave the group a 90-day trial and afterwards offered them a three-year lease. Stauss renewed the lease for three more years last month.

“He was kind enough to give these guys a chance, to give them a chance with their lives,” Lester says. “That’s why we ended up there, because the owner gave us a chance.”

None of the neighbors argue against the need to give these men a second chance—they’re simply concerned about the home’s proximity to so many children.

“The idea has value, and I’m all in support of these types of facilities if there are mechanisms in place to ensure community safety,” Hash says. But he feels the Victory House has fallen short of that, “considering the location of that facility within a neighborhood of families and couples.”

The neighborhood’s concerns eventually reached the City Council and, later, landed with Detective Jamie Merifield. She says she’s been aware of the Victory House for some time, but has only had personal contact with Lester since mid-March. At that time, Lester met with Stauss, Merifield and neighbors to negotiate a resolution.

“It was pretty heated,” Merifield says. “It was difficult. I think people are frustrated, feeling like they’re not being heard.”

Law enforcement views the agreement as a possible setback. Merifield, herself a parent, says the Victory House residents in question are the three most monitored individuals on the sex offender registry. Having them in such a structured residence reduces the risk of an incident.

“What I tried to express to the neighbors is if these people weren’t allowed to live in the Victory House, they’d be homeless,” Merifield says. “And a homeless sex offender is much more difficult to supervise.”

The point that tight supervision would quickly land any of the men back in jail following an incident gained no traction with Blair. He remains uneasy that, at least for the next year, three sex offenders will reside near his home.

“My attitude is,” he says, “if that one screw-up is my child, how am I supposed to take comfort in the fact that that guy’s going back to jail?”
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