It’s been a long wait for Neal Isley, president of Point of Connection Ministries, located outside the Joseph city limits. Nearly four years ago he started on a dream to provide transformational housing for men recovering from drug and alcohol issues to give them guidance and an opportunity to become productive members of society.
As he discovered, not everyone shared his dream. Isley fought neighbors, citizens of Joseph and the Wallowa County Planning Commission for years. At the March 26 planning commission meeting, his perseverance was rewarded and he received the go-ahead to begin with approval of a Conditional Use Permit
“It’s been a long time through some challenging issues,” Isley said.
In 2016, the planning commission denied Isley’s conditional use permit to provide transitional housing. He appealed the decision to the county’s board of commissioners, which upheld the decision. At that point, Corrine had to secure an attorney to appeal that decision to the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals. First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm from Plano, Texas, took the case and put together a legal team to represent the ministry.
The team secured the services of Mike Robinson, one of the premiere land use attorneys in the state. Robinson thought the ministry had a very strong and winnable case, as did the Texas firm. When the case proceeded to LUBA, the county, through an outside attorney, approached the ministry about doing an “outside remand.” In other words, bringing it back to the county where it would probably get approval.
The ministry withdrew the case and brought it back to the county only to find yet more hoops to jump through. The process slowed considerably. Not just because of the county, but the ministry’s attorney was working pro-bono.
“When he gets busy, our stuff gets bumped,” Isley said.
The minister said that in his view much of the resistance from citizens come from those with a “not in my back yard” attitude. Isley described it as “I’ll come up with these irrational fears based on what could happen.”
“Of course, if you start looking at what could happen, there’s no end to the limits,” Isley said. “It’s been amazing, listening to people speak at these hearings about some of the things they believe.” Isley gave an example from one of the hearings where a citizen said he heard the ministry works with chaplains at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario to call the warden and send inmates to the ministry.
“People actually believe I have the power to call up the warden of a state prison and say, ‘Hey, this is Neal over in Joseph. Send me over some guys,’” Isley said. “Do we really think the state is going to do that?”
Isley said that during his initial attempt, neighbors started a rumor that ministry residents would live in run-down housing with no supervision, living for free and doing nothing. He also heard he’d be taking death row inmates to put them back into society.
“That’s never been our intent; we’re not a homeless shelter,” Isley said. “We are a place for people to come and change if they want to.” What troubles Isley most is that he’s a member of a fourth-generation family and people wouldn’t approach him with concerns, but instead ranted at planning commission meetings. The ministry also tried holding informational meetings but got not takers.
“What we’re doing is making our community safer,” Isley said. He added that only one person spoke against the ministry at the March 26 planning commission meeting.
Why does Isley think the commission approved the housing this time around? He thinks some of it had to do with the fact that he didn’t have an attorney present the first time around. He said the differences between his first and second applications were minimal.
“We shored up a couple of things in case we ended up in court in the future, but it was basically the same application,” he said. “They were looking at First Liberty Institute and Mike Robinson and saying, ‘We don’t want to take these guys on. It might cost the county some money.’” County planning department director, Franz Goebel, also smoothed the path with a staff report to the commission that suggested if the conditional use permit was denied or restrictions/conditions above requiring the ministry to register as community based structured housing were added, it could be construed as discrimination.
“We are a faith-based organization and we offer Christian services, but the main focus of our ministry is transformational housing.” To that end, with the permit approval, Isley has already contacted the state’s Community-Based Structured Housing branch of the Oregon Health Authority and has already started to fill out paperwork to get the ball rolling. His resident building needs inspections by several state agencies, and he needs staff. He expects to be fully certified for residents by Aug. 1.
“We want to have everything in place before we help guys get started,” Isley said.
The housing will run similar to Oxford House, which is a community-based, mutual-help residential community for high-risk substance abuse individuals. Someone in the program oversees the house with decisions made by vote of the house members.
“Even though we’ll use some of their models, we have found that staff is really important,” Isley said. “If it’s only residents going through the program, you can run into problems. We actively seek people who will be there 24 hours a day. Not as a rule enforcer, but to be there to encourage and help guys going through the program to continue to move forward.”
The transformational housing program will be set up for 4-15 men.
Isley knows problems about addiction. He said he started drinking at his high school graduation party and didn’t stop until he was 34.
“It ruined my life,” he said. “I’ve walked and helped a lot of people since then in my recovery process.” He said one of the things he learned along the way was having a new group of people for support in the new lifestyle. He found at one point that every relationship he had revolved around alcohol. “No wonder I drank,” he said.
Isley noted that anyone coming into the program from the county’s parole and probation must sign two contracts. Not only do they have their probation contracts, but they must also sign a contract with the ministry that calls for expulsion for non-compliance with either probation or house regulations. Those residents will sign a similar contract with parole and probation.
“We have curfews and all these things,” he said. “If someone doesn’t check in at 9 p.m., we’ll get a phone call and know something’s going on, and they’ll be explaining it as soon as they’re found.” He added that relapse is a often a part of recovery, but the group can hopefully contain the problem quickly and minimize damage.
The ministry director said he’s aware that some still harbor suspicions about his motives, and they are welcome to sit down with him to discuss the program. He said that those who ask for information are generally surprised and support his mission.
“When people see what we’re actually doing, they begin to see that it is making a difference,” he said. “It’s about giving people opportunity, and I don’t know how that can be a bad thing.”