Tri-City Herald: Richland couple give ex-cons clean start‏

Richland couple give ex-cons clean start

This story was published Sunday, December 16th, 2007

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writer

A small sign in the window of what used to be Washtub Willy's laundromat on Fruitland Avenue says a Bible study is held each Monday at noon.

That's where Dan, Mark, Bob, Robert, P.K. and a few other guys meet with attorney Greg Dow every week to read the Bible. It's one reason Dow and his wife, Carol Darley Dow, have invested themselves and a lot of money into providing a place to live for men whose last known address was a jail or prison cell.

"We want to fulfill scripture by loving others," Dow said. That has meant inviting ex-cons over for Thanksgiving dinner and providing them a room at Elijah House.

Elijah House actually is two addresses: 504 N. Fruitland Ave. in Kennewick, a seven-unit apartment complex, and the former 16-unit Jones Motel, also known as the Ninth and Lewis Apartments in Pasco.

The Richland couple are able to get more than 30 men off the streets with the low-rent, two-bedroom units. They collect about $300 to $425 a month from each man, including utilities and cable TV.

But there are rules. No drugs, no alcohol, no women staying overnight and no probation violations. Each facility has a no-nonsense house manager to enforce the rules.

Bible studies are optional.

Greg Dow, who has a law practice for bankruptcy, landlord/tenant and family law issues, said that three years of investing his life into the outreach has taught him that men who have broken lives need love more than anything else.

"I'd take a bullet for any one of them, and I know they would for me," he said after a recent Bible study.

"What we are trying to do is make Christians of former inmates and to see if we can reduce crime."

The clean and sober environment at Elijah House has proved itself, Dow said, noting that the Department of Corrections and the Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee seek him out for placements of soon-to-be-released inmates.

"I really have the utmost respect for (the Dows)," said Rick Runge, a Kennewick police detective who works with the Tri-City Metro Task Force.

Runge said before the couple took over what was Washtub Willy's the task force officers were "hitting the place for drugs left and right all the time." But they haven't been called back in the three years since it became Elijah House.

Judith Gidley, executive director at Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee, said Elijah House takes some of the harder-to-serve cases.

"One of the key things we like is that it is clean and sober. People who have housing away from drugs and alcohol have a better chance. We wish we had more places like Elijah House," she said. "It is one of the first places we call when we need a place for someone."

Greg Dow said the need is constant.

"We get a lot of turnover. There's a lot of demand," he said.

Sometimes those calls involve Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders, who can have the toughest time finding a place to live.

More than half of the residents at the Pasco facility fit that profile. But Dow and Dan Ard, who has managed the Pasco apartments for seven years, say not one of their Level 2 or Level 3 residents has reoffended since Dow bought the property three years ago.

Carol Darley Dow, who has a video production business, said what they offer is love and a safe, nonjudgmental place for men who have been through jail or prison.

She explained that one of the most vulnerable times is when someone is released from jail. "That's where we want to catch them before they go wrong," she said.

But the love can be tough, if it has to be.

"If it is necessary, we will turn them in," Greg Dow said. "We hold them accountable because they are our friends."

"If they fall off the wagon, we stay in contact and try to be a constant in their lives. We have no agenda other than to be their friends," Carol Dow said.

Greg Dow said meeting weekly with the men for Bible study has helped him see how love can work.

"They see a caring environment, and it dawns on them that here is a family who is nonjudgmental. These guys really respond to that social interaction," he said.

Changing lives through Christian love isn't the Dows' only goal.

They also want to show that operating housing for former inmates, sex offenders and people who are mentally ill doesn't have to be a money-losing proposition.

Right now, the 16 units in Pasco are generating a small profit, Greg Dow said.

The seven Kennewick units are about $200 a month short of breaking even. But the Dows consider that not too bad because the rent money is paying off the $230,000 purchase price and allowing them to provide utilities and affordable rents.

"We want business people to see that this works both economically and with changed lives," he said.

Mark Bench has been managing the Fruitland property for Elijah House since July but has lived there for two years.

"What is happening here is awesome for these guys," said Bench, who includes himself in that comment. Having a place to stay and a responsible position is a big plus for Bench, 44.

"I had a hard life most of my life," Bench said. He was raised in a home with an abusive father who died when Bench was a teen. The family ended up living in a car, homeless in Southern California.

"We stayed wherever people wouldn't chase us off," he said.

Years later, his mother moved to the Tri-Cities to be closer to a relative.

Bench won't say why he and his mother didn't get along, but it involves unforgiveness.

He and a girlfriend had a son. They broke up and he spent the next decade doing drugs.

Since moving to the Tri-Cities 10 years ago, Bench slowly saw change in his life that led away from poor choices to becoming a Christian. He proudly displays a baptismal certificate from May 14, 2006, when Dow and his pastor, Lee Moses, dipped Bench into the Yakima River.

"I have a new family. It is love, something I haven't had in years. God has given me a way to love again," he said.

Others at Elijah House have the same opportunity.

"When they come out (of jail) they nave nothing to look forward to. Lots of times their families are out of state. The most important thing is this gives them an address," Bench said.

That's what Robert Conley, 44, needed when he called on the Fruitland apartments on Dec. 27, 2006.

Conley was in jail until the summer of 2006 on a drug charge. Upon his release in August, he set up camp under the Interstate 182 bridge over the Yakima River at Queensgate. Old habits quickly returned, and Conley soon was back in Benton County lock-up for another couple of months.

Conley's next abode was a travel trailer in Benton City, but it still was too close to the drug culture he seemed unable to shake.

Conley's Thanksgiving was a turkey dinner in jail.

When he got out, he was desperate.

"I had no place to go. My family had enough of me. I was the chief of screw-ups," Conley said.

"I prayed, God help me. God help me," he said.

The answer came from a contact in jail who suggested the Elijah House might help.

Conley moved in with just a sack full of clothes.

Today, he is working full time as a leader for a custodial crew, has a driver's license, a car and has been clean and sober just more than a year.

"I give all the glory to God for the significant change in my life," Conley said. "I got a 42-inch TV as a Christmas present to myself, and I'm paying my bills," he said proudly. He also volunteers each weekend as a cook at Faith Innkeepers in Kennewick, glad to share how his life has been changed for the better.

The small two-bedroom apartment also is home to Conley's roommate, Bob Keynon, 54. He has a similar story about poor choices, social associations and substance abuse.

But Keynon also has cancer. Surgery last week at Kadlec Medical Center in Kennewick was touch and go, but the former firefighter and power weightlifter said from his hospital bed Wednesday he was looking forward to going home in a couple of days.

"It is really good what (Greg and Carol Dow) are doing. You don't meet people like that very often," Keynon said.

"Having a place at Fruitland keeps me straight and helps me be responsible. I like being accepted. It's a family," Keynon said.

Keynon's greatest worry isn't his health or his future, it is his 11-year-old son whom he hasn't seen or heard from in nearly six years.

"What I'd like for Christmas is to spend a day with him and his mother," he said.

There's little chance of that, even though the mother and son live in Walla Walla County. Keynon said his past behavior caused the separation, so he has to live with the results.

"He needs to have street smarts, but not the way I learned," Keynon said.

Regrets play big in the lives at Elijah House, both in Kennewick and Pasco.

"These guys are so beaten down they just want to be left alone," said Dan Ard, who keeps a close watch on the Pasco apartments for the Dows.

Ard, 52, is well-suited for the job. He's retired with more than 18 years in the Army, including service in Desert Storm, and not inclined to take guff from anyone.

"I've had guys who are some of the worst," he said. "They've lived on the street for years, but once they come here, they don't want to be anywhere else."

Ard's residents tend to present tougher social issues than those at the Fruitland facility because of mental illness and sex offender convictions.

But his track record speaks well for Elijah House.

"We've had no one reoffend in the nearly eight years I've been here," he said. A plaque given by the city of Pasco Crime-Free Multi-Housing program commends Ard. It hangs above his desk, displayed near some military service medals.

Public attitude against sex offenders, and Pasco's push to make it harder for them to live without public scrutiny, means fewer places will accept them, Ard said.

The Dows' response is to try not to turn anyone away.

"It's to the point where we are the only place who will take these guys anymore," Ard said.

Calls from probation officers looking to place a Level 3 offender come frequently, he said.

And sometimes the calls are from outside the Tri-Cities.

One recently came from Vancouver, Wash., where a Level 3 sex offender was rejected repeatedly in attempts to find shelter. He ended up camped out several freezing nights in the Department of Corrections parking lot with no other options.

Ard said as soon as Dow heard the story, he told Ard to find a place somewhere in Elijah House for the man.

"Greg and Carol have a heart for the homeless," Ard said.

"The public is cynical about what we are doing. But people forget, there are guys who are changed, who are productive," Carol Dow said.

Still, Conley said he knows how quickly he could fall back.

"It's a lot of hard work. It's easy to get clean, and a lot harder to stay clean. We are creatures of habit. The change comes from God," he said.

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