Pensacola, Florida
Friday September 22nd 2017

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REAP Sparks Controversy

By Duwayne Escobedo

Brownsville resident Chuck Garnette opposes the ReEntry Alliance of Pensacola.

The REAP program, as it is known, takes ex-convicts released from county, state or federal prisons and gives them food, shelter, and a job. The program offers them a second chance to be solid members of their community instead of returning to a life of crime or becoming homeless.

But the 70-year-old Garnette alleges REAP stacked two Lynch Street houses full of sex offenders in Brownsville near a school bus stop. Mothers had the bus stop relocated from the “Reaper” houses, according to Garnette.

Even worse, he found, even more folks in pop-up campers and tents living in the backyards of 909 and 911 Lynch St. Garnette worked with the county’s Sandra Slay and other code enforcement officials, and REAP eventually moved the sex offenders to another house at the end of September.

He wrote a five-page, e-mail dated Oct. 4, to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Rodgers outlining “illegal activity at REAP,” and copied attorney Fred Levin, Escambia County commissioners, Pensacola council members, and Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

It’s just one clash the outspoken and dogged Garnette has had with REAP, a darling of IMPACT 100, various criminal justice leaders, such as Rodgers, state lawmakers, and community leaders, such as former Baptist Hospital leader Al Stubblefield.

“The people of Brownsville are ill-equipped to defend themselves from this program funded by their own tax dollars and endorsed by a federal judge,” Garnette wrote.

“That is why REAP is in Brownsville. The well-heeled and legally represented residents of Pensacola [in North Hill] refused to even allow a simple probation office in their neighborhood. I’m certainly not going to allow this organization to move sex offenders into mine.”

In an interview with Inweekly, Garnette summed it up: “It’s a good thing gone sour.”

REAP was started in December 2013, growing out of a “concept” by Rodgers and a group of attorneys. Considered a worthwhile program to reduce the strain on the criminal justice system, REAP earned a $106,000 grant from IMPACT 100, a local women’s philanthropy group, in 2015.

A $200,000 grant from the state for 2016 was vetoed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. But REAP did receive the taxpayer money for the 2017 year.

The organization receives other donations from individuals, including meals, groceries and second-hand clothing from the Richards Memorial United Methodist Church. The church also provides REAP modest office space for its “reentry center” in its building on the corner of Strong and T streets. It has one sparse room with four old computers sitting on a table. There’s a sign-up sheet for REAP clients and a list of a handful of jobs that are available. Also, there is a “REAP what you sow” garden across the street from the church.

REAP charges its clients $100 a week for a room and $50 a week for a couch in one of its 11 Brownsville houses that it rents.

Rick Dye, the former REAP executive director and a retired banker from Regions Bank, told Inweekly Publisher Rick Outzen on his Pensacola Speaks program on 1370 AM WCOA, that non-violent men and women getting out of jail and returning to Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties would be helped.

Dye said in the interview a year after REAP started that the program would intervene in the 100 days before the criminals left prison to 100 days after. Assistance would include helping them gather all of their documents, such as ID cards, food stamps, and medical cards. He said they would receive psychological help, work on their drug or alcohol addictions, and get job training.

The goal was to become the Pensacola Portal for all of those wanting to become “re-acclimated to society” after being incarcerated.

Dye, who left the program late last year, said then: “We want to reach out to them and help them because we believe that it’s a lot cheaper for us to help them in our reentry center than it is for them to get in trouble again and go back to prison and cost the taxpayers $50,000 a year.”

Employers of REAP clients include ECUA, Joe Patti’s Seafood, Beulah Landfill, Crown Laundry Service, and a tire store. Action Labor also provides work.

On a dry erase board in Vinnie Whibbs Jr.’s office are multiple lists of names of ex-cons in the resident program. Whibbs oversees REAP.

The program recently counted 49 people living in REAP housing. Also, 15 are listed as “Graduates,” meaning they are successfully living on their own. Nine people are listed as “Lost Souls,” returning to jail. Eleven are listed as “Prodigal Sons,” who exited the program and whose whereabouts are unknown. All are men.

Whibbs defended the reentry program.

“The REAP program takes every individual from the county, state or federal system that needs reentry,” he said. “We don’t discriminate on the charges they have. A sex offender needs a house like anybody else.”

Whibbs told Inweekly that he found the first REAP clients living in the woods behind the First Assembly of God Church on Bayou Boulevard. He said, “Every day we keep someone out a prison is a victory for us, a victory for them and a victory for our community.”

Stubblefield, the REAP board chairman, also championed the program. He is a chief benefactor. The former hospital executive bought the program a large SUV to take about 15-20 clients back and forth to their jobs every day, which are primarily with the new ECUA recycling center.

“It is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever been a part of,” he said. “You should see their eyes light up when they get their first job. We are making a difference in these people’s lives.”

He is well aware of Brownsville neighbors’ objection to sex offenders living near them. He points out that wherever they live, their probation officer must approve it first. He also said it’s easier to have them all in one house because it makes it simpler for REAP representatives to keep track of them.

“The sex offender issue is so laden with emotion,” Stubblefield said. “They are the lepers of today’s society. I understand that. But what are we supposed to tell them? ‘Go live under a bridge.’”

Still, Brownville residents such as Rivka and Mike Kilmer—better known as the electronic music duo Mad haPPy—remain skeptical of their REAP neighbors. They live around the corner from three REAP homes near the corner of Gadsden and U streets that are littered with garbage. Nearby an empty, open, charred house stands.

Rivka said she feels less than “100 percent” comfortable with REAP members. Mike said he’s concerned that REAP would use Brownsville, which he sees as an up-and-coming neighborhood. But he relented: “I prefer people in the houses than sitting around empty.”

Sheila McReynolds said she checks out her Gadsden Street neighborhood when her dog begins barking ferociously. The 52-year-old helped restore a drug house next door, which now looks clean and sharp, and keeps tabs on what happens on her block.

“They are not harming anybody,” she said, but added, “We are aware of our surroundings at all times. I have 911 on speed dial.”

One 60-year-old REAP member said the three-bedroom Gadsden Street house he shares with five other men lacks heating and cooling. A Vietnam veteran, the black man collects a monthly $700 pension and said REAP helped him secure an affordable apartment that he planned to move to soon.

Another middle-aged man with a mustache, who lives at another small house on Gadsden, praised REAP. They helped him secure a Florida ID, food stamps and social security card.

“They’ve really helped me. I would be homeless,” said the man as he puffed on a cigarette. He assured his Brownsville neighbors: “I don’t think they have anything to be afraid of.”

At REAP headquarters, Paul Kennedy, 52, and Herb Price, 56, are held up by Whibbs as success stories.

Kennedy spent 30 years in prison and had no idea how to use a debit card or cell phone when he was released for crimes he committed while on drugs and alcohol. His parents and brother died while he served his time. Meanwhile, Price spent 12 years in prison for sexual battery, which he maintained was consensual. Both have earned their commercial driving licenses, while in REAP. They plan to drive semi-trailer trucks.

“My main goal was staying close to the church and staying clean,” Kennedy said. “I had no place to go, no family, no nothing.”

Price added: “I got all the things a person needs for a fresh start from REAP.”

Rodgers admitted she is “very supportive” of the reentry program based on her idea back in 2011, especially with the federal prison population rising 800 percent the past 30 years, while the federal budget for incarceration jumped 1,900 percent during that period. However, she and Chief Probation Officer Anthony Castellano said they are not involved with REAP and have sent very few clients to the local reentry program because the Northern District of Florida has its own reentry program.

“It doesn’t do the community any good or taxpayers any good, if (ex-convicts) go right back to their old ways,” she told Inweekly. “We’re still all about recidivism reduction.”