March 10, 2008
Bennie Belton thought he'd found the answer to his prayers when he learned that a small group home for women on South Tejon Street would soon be vacant.
Liza's Place, as it had been known since opening in 2003, would be the perfect place to start his new ministry, Restoration House.
Belton thought he would simply pick up where Liza's Place left off, shepherding ex-cons back into mainstream society at the house. The only difference: Restoration House would help men.
Belton - who counsels juveniles and adult offenders in a prison ministry - was shocked at the way neighbors in Ivywild, south of downtown, attacked him and denounced his plan.
"I thought they would be more receptive," Belton said. "My program is modeled after Liza's Place. It's a faith-based program to help individuals coming out of prison and help them make positive decisions so they can be successful in society.
"I thought the neighbors would accept me and help these people. I was surprised at the reaction."
Neighbors fought him before the city Planning Commission in February. And they will fight him Tuesday before City Council.
"We just don't want it there," said Robert Aertker, who owns an office building and rental property near the house. "I don't feel like it's an appropriate use. It's close to an elementary school, single women and children."
It doesn't matter that Belton has promised to carefully screen the men he accepts. Or that he has vowed not to accept sex offenders into his six-month program.
Or that he will require each man to get a job, attend church three days a week, sit down for meals each day at 6 p.m. and submit to 24-hour-a-day supervision.
It doesn't matter that Belton will require each man to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs and pornography at the house.
Neighbors don't want it and feel betrayed because the original zoning change, which allowed Liza's Place to open, carried a stipulation that only women live there.
The Planning Commission says now the stipulation is invalid because it discriminates against men.
"The commission said the gender condition is unenforceable," said Heather Rose, the city planner who handled the case. "The city doesn't have the authority to regulate gender issues in human service establishments."
Aertker and others are not persuaded. If the zoning must allow men, then the zoning should be changed to prohibit both genders, he said.
He recognizes that a handful of unsupervised sex offenders live in flophouses and low-rent apartments along nearby Brookside Street and other areas of Ivywild.
"Why add more sex offenders and drug addicts down there?" Aertker said. "Unless they just want to make Ivywild a dumping ground. We don't. We want to see Ivywild cleaned up."
Belton, however, is determined to proceed.
"As Christians, we are asked to go out and help those in need," Belton said. "These men have no place to go. But they can survive if they have assistance."