Feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger and outrage were on display Thursday as residents of Woodville protested a transition center housing sex offenders and predators. The issue has been building in recent days, and Thursday the operators of the center--a local church--announced they would shutter the facility after a cease-and-desist order from the county. But Woodville residents still have bitter feelings.
About two dozen people line Woodville Highway, between the elementary school bearing the same name, and a nondescript storefront building with a sign out front that reads “Closed for Prayer at 2. Will reopen Friday afternoon”.
“Nobody here in Woodville really knew it was going on," says Christina Wortham. She's standing a few steps away in front of a grocery store, holding a protest sign. "Children go in there all the time, and I think that’s the main thing. No one is comfortable with them [sex offenders and predators] all under one roof.”
The number of protestors, outnumbers those in support. But there are some, like Karissa Martin, who defend the church. She’s standing in front of Good Samaritan’s roped off entrance, and four other people are with her.
“ I don’t agree with their [sex offenders and predators] actions," she says, "But everyone deserves a second chance."
Good Samaritan opened a transition center for homeless men, most of them sex offenders and predators last month. It did that with the approval of the county for a change of use for the building. Residents only found out about the center a few days ago. It has sparked outrage in the small town, and many people say they were left in the dark.
The Leon County School District held an emergency meeting Thursday at Woodville Elementary.
About a hundred people crammed into the school's tiny library to hear from Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood, County Commissioner Bill Proctor and school Superintendent Jackie Pons. But the man who got the most questions is Glenn Burns, pastor of Good Samaritan. The church previously ran a homeless shelter in downtown Tallahassee that closed a few years ago. And when the city’s new shelter stopped accepting sex offenders and predators, Burns says he volunteered to help:
“So we took the responsibility, but we told them [city/county officials] at the time...I need help from everybody. This is not our problem, our field, [it's] our community's issue, and everyone promised me they would help. And no one has talked to me since."
Burns says he won’t fight a cease-and-desist order from the county. It’s giving the church seven days to close the center. Burns says the Department of Corrections has agreed to house some of the men, and others have found new places to stay. But there are about five who have nowhere to go.
“Wherever we go, in any community, anywhere no one will ever approve it," he says. "It will have to be a place where no one is there--but, it is what it is. This isn’t our vendetta, or our cause. We were asked by the community to help with this, and nobody helped us. Now we’re going to get some help, I believe.”
Some residents say they want the entire church gone. Meanwhile, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor admits the county made mistakes. It was aware of what the church wanted to do, even told it what paperwork to file. Proctor says he plans to raise the issue at the next county commission meeting. Meanwhile, the question of where and how to house sex offenders in Leon County has not been answered. Residents of Fort Braden are concerned about a planned community to house sex offenders and predators. It’s stoking concerns about safety.
*Correction: The church was granted a change of use permit, not a zoning change. A zoning change involves public meetings.