September 5, 2010

Sex offenders find home, fresh start in Oklahoma City mobile home park

9-5-2010 Oklahoma:

The Rev. David Nichols started Hand Up Ministries in 1996 with the intention of helping convicted felons get a fresh start. It has since evolved to help mostly sex offenders who have no other place to go.

There is an unusual warning posted outside a common-looking mobile home park in southeast Oklahoma County.

It reads "No women or children allowed past this point," in large, red assertive letters, as if on the other side of the gate exists a danger as deadly as toxic waste or an atomic bomb.

The sign wasn't hung for the protection of visitors, but for the 227 convicted felons — 215 who are registered sex offenders — living there.

A man is stationed at the entrance to enforce the rule, and there are video cameras in the driveway to document the comings and goings. These are precautions the Rev. David Nichols insists they must take against "enemies" who have tried to destroy what's been built here. Nichols wouldn't put it past "some law-abiding citizen" to wage a false accusation against one of the men living in the park in an effort to shut it down.

The pastor founded Hand Up Ministries more than a decade ago and has fought his share of battles to defend it, even landing once in the county lockup, accused of violating a sex offender housing law.

There is a website passionately against the organization. Attempts by The Oklahoman to contact the administrator of by e-mail were unsuccessful.

"He shows no concern for our safety. Only building his ministry of rapists and pedophiles," the website states.

The program is designed to help convicted felons transition from prison to mainstream life again, but has evolved to help mostly sex offenders.

"As you can imagine, it hasn't made me too popular with a lot of folks, but I decided a long time ago that wasn't going to stop me," Nichols said.

His reasoning is simple: "No one else is going to do it."

A home, a neighborhood

The mobile home park is at 2130 SE 59, adjacent to the town of Valley Brook, notorious for its many men's clubs and a view of Oklahoma City's mountainous landfill.

Hand Up Ministries bought the property about three years ago after being forced out of an Oklahoma City apartment house determined to be too close to a school. The organization's loss turned into a blessing when a developer bought the apartments for $500,000. Nichols said the money was used to buy the 41-acre mobile home park that at the time had no homes.

Since then, it's become a close-knit neighborhood with 69 modest mobile homes and 38 travel trailers. Despite the absence of women and children, it looks like any other. Men arrive home during the late afternoon from work and school, lugging their lunch pails and book bags. In the evening, dog walkers and bike riders travel its few streets.

Chris Hollrah said he and most of the men living in the park were facing homelessness before arriving.

Hollrah, a former business executive, waiter and fiction writer, was convicted in 2009 of exposing himself to a teenage girl over the Internet. As part of a plea agreement that kept him out of jail, he agreed to register as a sex offender. He then lost his job, ran out of savings and was 36 hours from living on the street when his probation officer recommended Hand Up, he said.

"I'm not trying to make excuses for what I've done," Hollrah said. "I'm just trying to get my life back together, but in a better way."

He said living there gives him and other sex offenders an address to register to stay in compliance with the law. Nichols makes sure they keep up with their probation requirements and stay current with court fines.

Hollrah said since he's been at Hand Up he's actively attended Bible study and church services, and volunteers in a food pantry.

No free ride

The park has emerged as a self-sufficient community, appearing as tightly run as a military base with Nichols as its commanding officer.

Residents sign an agreement to follow Hand Up's rules, which include a midnight curfew. Fighting, drugs or alcohol are grounds for immediate expulsion.

Nichols claims the mobile home park is safer than others around it, and that might be true. In the past nine months, there have been no complaints or reports of criminal activity, said Jennifer Wardlow, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City Police Department.

Wardlow said it's not been identified as a problem for police.

Nichols said Hand Up is supported by the men. Those who can, pay $100 a week in program fees. That support carries those who can't pay until they find work or are OK'd for Social Security benefits.

Most of the men possess talents, education or a trade, but have trouble getting jobs because they're sex offenders. Those not working are usually assigned duties in the park as a way of earning their keep.

Hand Up has several blossoming ventures aimed at job training and providing work for the men. There is a mechanic shop, tree and lawn service and welding and T-shirt screening businesses.

Sex offender dilemma

For three years, the mobile home park has managed to operate somewhat under the radar. "We are one of the best-kept secrets in the Oklahoma City area," Nichols said.

"Once the truth about what's going on here gets out, it's probably going to cause nothing but problems for me."

Hand Up is the only organization of its kind in Oklahoma, with the exception of Chandler resident Tom Wright's LOVE Foundation.

Wright last year was housing as many as a dozen sex offenders before neighbors' protests nearly shut him down. As of this month, only three are enrolled in the foundation's program.

Still Nichols chooses to speak up for the men he's trying to help, in hopes the more people learn about Hand Up Ministries, the less fear will resonate from it. He said lawmakers, the criminal justice system and society have made it increasingly difficult for sex offenders to live.

"A guy convicted one time of indecent exposure is clumped into the same category as a predator that violently rapes little kids," Nichols said. "Society sees them all the same, and lawmakers perpetuate that to create laws that would otherwise be considered unreasonable."

Bernard LeGrow, 50, convicted in 1997 of lewd molestation, said it's nearly impossible for a registered sex offender to find affordable housing in neighborhoods that aren't drug- and crime-infested.

A law prohibiting them from living within 2,000 feet of a park, school or church bars them from most of Oklahoma City.

Even the words "sex offender" are printed in red across their driver's licenses and state identification cards, he said.

"It's like we're constantly being told we can never change, but that's not true," LeGrow said. ..Source.. ANN KELLEY

1 comment:

Chance said...

Apparently it hasn't occurred to the good reverend that men can also be offended against and/or levy false accusations as good as anyone else.