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Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013

Neighbors protest plan to help former prostitutes build new lives on vacant campus

The Kansas City Star

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St. Paul’s new home Tight finances prompted St. Paul School of Theology’s move to the suburbs. It could no longer afford campus upkeep. Operations are now spread among three locations. Classes start Monday at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. Administrative offices are 3.7 miles north of the church, also in Leawood, at Interstate 435 and Roe Avenue. Student dorms are at Avila University in south Kansas City, 4.7 miles from the church.

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When the St. Paul School of Theology announced its move from Kansas City’s urban core to Johnson County last fall, Eastsiders fretted that the 19-acre campus would become just one more vacant eyesore.

But now that a sales contract is pending, some residents of the neighborhood say they’d almost prefer broken windows and buildings stripped by copper thieves to what’s being a planned at the corner of Truman Road and Van Brunt Boulevard.

And that is a center for social service agencies, of which the only announced tenants so far are two groups that would house dozens of former prostitutes in dorms where divinity students once studied and prayed.

“My gut reaction,” resident Sherry Ashcroft said, “is I’d rather see it boarded up, with graffiti all over it and weeds up to my eyeballs than this.”

The issue is so divisive that the leader of the neighborhood association quit.

Fearful that their property values will plummet and the crime rate will rise once the ex-prostitutes move in next door, distressed neighbors have mobilized. They’ve distributed handbills, gone on TV and filed a petition at City Hall against the re-use plan being proposed by the Kansas City Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation, or KC CASE.

“What we’re trying to do is protect our neighborhood,” said David Biersmith, head of the Truman Road Corridor Association, “and it’s a battle every day.”

Not everyone who lives in the area opposes the plan. Several residents turned up at a City Plan Commission meeting this week to voice their support for both the concept and the location.

“There’s crime already in our neighborhood,” lifelong resident Curtis Urness said. “I don’t see how a program helping people leave this life (of prostitution) would cause more crime.”

Supporters further note that the plan involves much more than twin dormitories for adults and youths who became prostitutes to survive, or were coerced into it at as young as age 12.

Other buildings on the campus would house nonprofits providing a variety of social services open to the greater community, such as job training, drug treatment and medical care. There’s talk of a day care and a charter school.

“What I don’t want people to think is that this campus would be solely a one-stop shop for victims of commercial sex exploitation,” said Steven Wagner, the Washington, D.C.-based project manager.

The plan commission ordered a four-week cooling-off period so that KC CASE can firm up financial details and better explain its plan to neighbors, many of whom learned about it only a week before the commission meeting.

That ensures this debate will continue into the fall at a series of public meetings. Ultimately, the City Council will decide whether to change the current zoning classification to allow for the proposed re-use.

Wagner acknowledges that he has a lot of work to do before then to change minds that are already made up.

“There’s been a significant amount of misinformation about this project,” he said.

‘A noble mission’

You can see where opponents might get the impression that this project all revolves around illicit sex.

KC CASE, the nonprofit group wanting to buy the campus, was founded three years ago with a single mission: “End violence and mistreatment toward all persons being trafficked for commercial sex in the Kansas City metro area.”

All four coalition members have that focus:

• Veronica’s Voice, a Kansas City nonprofit group that helps prostitutes get off the street.

• The Human Rights Office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which is committed to fighting human trafficking.

• Renewal Forum, a national nonprofit founded by Wagner, which works to fight human trafficking, “particularly the commercial sexual exploitation of juveniles.”

• Ozanam Pathways, a locally based charity that provides transitional living services for teens and young adults.

Adding to neighbors’ suspicion that the campus would primarily serve ex-prostitutes: The only announced tenants are Veronica’s Voice and Ozanam Pathways, and residents wonder how the organization can pay for buying and running such a large operation.

Discussions with other agencies are underway, Wagner said, but so far none has committed to moving in.

Veronica’s Voice would house “adult victims of commercial sexual exploitation” for up to two years.

Ozanam would operate a similar shelter for children and juveniles in another building. Most adult prostitutes started out as kids, an Ozanam spokeswoman said.

Opponents don’t dispute the need and validity of either program.

“It’s a noble mission,” resident Dale Fugate said, “but we have 19 acres, we have 10 multistory buildings. ...

“I’d like to see something else in there, I really would.”

He and other opponents fear that, by providing ex-prostitutes a place to live in the neighborhood, it would attract more of that activity to an area that currently is not plagued with prostitution the way nearby Independence Avenue is.

Some would fall off the wagon and start turning tricks on Truman Road, they say. And what about their pimps?

But Wagner said spillover crime has not been a problem in other cities. “It’s a reasonable question, and the answer is no,” he said.

Likewise, said Veronica’s Voice founder Kristy Childs, women seeking shelter and a new start are not likely to be out selling sex on the side while attending the group’s programs.

“They have dreams,” she said. “They want something different.”

Right now, she said, Veronica’s Voice is hampered in its efforts because the group has no way to house women who come seeking counseling, new skills and treatment.

So each day after they get help at the group’s “safe center” in midtown, she said, “We have to send them back out into the war zone.”

While at the campus, she said, they would live for about two years learning how to make a legitimate living off the streets.

A shelter like that is desperately needed, said Jessica Parle, a former counselor at Veronica’s Voice who seven years ago got sober and quit taking strangers’ money in exchange for sex.

“Where would you like to put this, if not here?” she asked opponents at the plan commission meeting. “If not here, where?”

Little notice

Neighbors haven’t had much time to consider questions like that.

Most only learned about the project last week. A hastily arranged neighborhood association meeting did not go well.

Wagner said the attorney for KC CASE was shouted down.

Longtime neighborhood association president Jacky Ross, who supports the project, resigned afterward. She acknowledged at the plan commission meeting that she’d known about the plan since meeting with Wagner in May but had not informed others active in the association because of scheduling problems.

“It’s my fault,” she said.

The St. Paul School of Theology didn’t put the word out, either. Late last year, the college said it intended to sell the entire campus, rather than one building at a time.

Also, because of a deed restriction, the buyer had to be some kind of religious organization, a school or social service agency.

“Certainly, our goal primarily,” St. Paul President Myron McCoy said at the time, “is something that will hopefully have some focus in bringing healing and wholeness to the community.”

This week, as its instructors prepared to teach classes at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, the college refused to provide any information on the proposed sale.

“No comment,” a spokeswoman said via email.

However, Wagner said he’s been told that school officials are “thrilled.”

“This is exactly what they were hoping would emerge,” he said.

Both council members who represent the 3rd District, Jermaine Reed and Melba Curls, are hopeful something can be worked out because they’d hate to see the campus stay vacant.

“I think the concept is something that could be beneficial to folks who need those services in our community,” Reed said.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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