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Nonprofit offers former inmates transitional Christian homes

July 19, 2019

TOPKEA, Kan. (AP) — Often when inmates get out of jail, it’s their drug dealer who picks them up, Matt Thomas said.

He’s working to reverse that trend through a program that seeks to give such people not only a ride, but also a firm foundation on which to build their new life.

Thomas, a former inmate himself, is the executive director of Wichita-based Firm Foundations Ministries Inc.

That nonprofit group recently began providing Christian transitional housing for former inmates in a building it owns at 1620 S.W. College Ave., and property it rents at 2418 S.W. Central Park Ave.

Firm Foundations has been a “godsend” in terms of helping former Shawnee County Jail inmates avoid going back, said Rich Christie, coordinator of the re-entry program at the Shawnee County Department of Corrections.

While the county’s re-entry program does all it can to prepare jail inmates for life on the outside, that program can’t help them once they’re released, Christie said.

Firm Foundations can, he said.

Firm Foundations was able to open its two Topeka locations without needing to apply for any changes in zoning. In contrast, Louisiana-based ReEntry Development LLC gave up in 2017 after trying unsuccessfully to obtain zoning changes that would have enabled it to operate a halfway house, first at 2035 S.W. Western Ave., then at 3401 N.E. Seward Ave. The company encountered opposition at both sites.

Residents living in the area are aware of the presence of the Firm Foundations house at 1620 S.W. College, said Ardith Smith-Woertz, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association.

“Overall, there aren’t a lot of complaints about the folks living there,” she said.

The Topeka Capital-Journal tried unsuccessfully to hear perspectives from others by knocking on doors last week in the areas involved.

Thomas wants those living near Firm Foundations homes to know that being good neighbors is a key focus of the program.

“We believe in building up the neighborhood,” he said.

Firm Foundations provides both housing and a Christian-based program to develop life skills and provide direction for successful re-introduction to society, Thomas said.

According to the program’s website: “Our program focuses on multiple areas in the lives of each member, including providing the tools and resources to find and maintain stable employment, set future goals that enable them to become healthy and productive members of society, enable spiritual and personal growth and teach them the fundamental skills of living a life for Christ.”

A total of five inmates live at Firm Foundations’ two Topeka locations, one of which is a three- or four-bedroom house, while the other offers six one-bedroom apartments, Thomas said. Those opened in March or April, he said.

In addition, Firm Foundations operates three such sites in Wichita, and is about to open one in Kansas City, Kansas, Thomas said.

He makes a point to avoid using the phrase “halfway house” to describe what Firm Foundations is maintaining. That phrase gives a negative connotation, Thomas said.

Residents of Firm Foundations homes are required to do both indoor and outdoor chores.

“The house and yard have to look nice,” Thomas said.

Residents also must stay clean and sober, and avoid committing violent acts, he said. If they don’t comply, they get kicked out.

Firm Foundations encourages residents to move on to more permanent housing within nine months to a year, though those who wish to become the manager for a specific property the program maintains may stay longer.

In addition to his involvement with Firm Foundations, Thomas also works at Brothers in Blue Reentry at Lansing Correctional Facility.

According to the Firm Foundations website, his life path has been “both winding and bumpy.”

“He was born in Oregon, sent to boarding school in Washington, joined the Navy in California, attended college in Indiana and went to prison in Arizona — but has been on fire for God’s kingdom since coming to Kansas in 2011,” that site said. “He has battled the demons of addiction and abuse, and knows the hurt and devastation this kind of sin can cause.”

The Firm Foundations website describes Thomas as “a former convict who found God and reaped the benefits from an aftercare program in Arizona.”

It says he saw a great need for a similar kind of program in Kansas after moving to Wichita in 2011.

“After two years of prayer, planning, brick walls and dead ends, God’s spirit began to move in a mighty way,” the site says. “An unlikely team of people was brought together, and doors that had been closed for years began to open.”

Thomas said his wife, Christina Thomas — also a former inmate — helped him create Firm Foundations.

The organization was formed and received nonprofit status in March 2014, the same month in which it opened its first home and brought in its first program member.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com

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