By Vann Ellison
President & CEO
St. Matthew's House
On Sunday, July 15, the Naples Daily News ran a front page "special report" highlighting the release of 85 inmates from the State of Florida prison system directly to St. Matthew's House over a 6 year period. The main concern was that prisoners from other counties were now being released in Naples. The article was highlighted with thumbnail photos of the men and women involved.
The Daily News followed up on Thursday, July 19, with an editorial reiterating the report and asking our supporters if they are aware of "limited resources being deployed in this manner?"
We find it troubling that the newspaper is calling into question the work of St. Matthew's House. Questions were raised as to whether it is right to care for broken men and women who come to us after finishing their prison sentences. We declare that we are an organization that obeys the call from the Old and New Testaments that we demonstrate our character by helping the least of these. We feed the hungry, clothe and care for the poor, shelter the homeless, bring healing to those struggling with addictions, care for the sick, and provide structured reentry programs to a few ex offenders.
The following are facts that we feel were missing from these public allegations:
Without soliciting for residents in any manner, St. Matthew's House has managed a waiting list for the past six years.
Of the 85 inmates listing St. Matthew's House as their destination upon release:
o 15 never arrived
o 10 arrived at some time significantly after their release
o 60 did arrive directly from prison
o Of these former inmates all of them remained crime-free while participating in our programs
The 60 who did arrive over a six-year period were among:
o 179,708 total releases from state prison during this period (the 60 represented .03 percent)
o 3,791 that were released to Collier and Lee counties (these 60 represented 1.6 percent)
Of the 60 that did arrive over a six-year period only 26, (.66 percent of the 3,791 released to Collier and Lee Counties) were convicted in areas outside those counties.
When contacted, St. Matthew's House makes it a practice to direct prison inmates to facilities close to their homes and families.
We provide bus transportation for locally released inmates to return to their cities of origin if contact info can be confirmed. By transporting people out of the area we decrease the number of released inmates in our community and provide those individuals a better chance of success by returning them to their homes.
The articles posed the following questions:
What is our obligation to those lost souls not already our friends and neighbors?
Why can't these prisoners go back where they came from for help? Are they trying to escape something by coming here?
We feel that the better question is, "What can our community do to support transition from incarceration for those willing to make commitments necessary for developing a self-sufficient and productive life?"
Our mission at St. Matthew's House is to change lives in a spiritual environment that is both compassionate and disciplined, as well as providing housing for the homeless and food for the needy.We do this because we believe, as our founders did, that we are following the admonition of Jesus as written in Matthew 25:35-46. There is a similar call in Isaiah 58:7 in the Hebrew Bible.
Our loyalty to this directive is evidenced in that over this same six-year period we have:
Served over 1.2 million meals to those in need in our community
Handed out over 40,000 bags of groceries to those at or below the poverty line
Provided shelter to over 8,600 homeless men, women and children, of whom 60 have been singled out for concern
We believe in the hope found in lives that are transformed through the grace of God and the care of concerned citizens.
We have a 25-year track record of providing solutions. While we realize we cannot help everyone who is homeless, we can help those who want to be helped and are willing to take the steps necessary for recovery.
Our success in executing this mission has always been and always will be contingent on our donors and volunteers. Since the article and editorial were published we have had pullback and concern from some and are saddened by the collateral damage. Several people whose faces were on the front page faced harassment at work, even though they have been productive, taxpaying citizens for years. We believe that when people have served their time and changed their lives they deserve better than the front-page reminder that they once struggled.
We feel confident that as the truth of who we are and what we do is communicated we will continue to have the wonderful community support we enjoy.