HALL COUNTY -- A Gainesville ministry’s plans to build a campus housing women involved in sex trafficking has drawn fierce opposition from neighbors who say they worry such a development would raise safety concerns and lower property values.
Straight Street Revolution Ministries is hoping to build the campus on 50 acres off Weaver Road, a hilly area off Poplar Springs Road in southeast Hall County, presenting the proposal to a divided audience at a community meeting Tuesday night.
“Scripture says to love the least of these and that’s who we are as a ministry,” Straight Street Founder Todd Robson said. “And then it says … don’t just say (that) you love, but love with action.”
The nonprofit organization, set to ask for rezoning before the Hall County Planning Commission on Monday, is looking to eventually build 17 houses for the women, as well as an administrative building, barn, chapel, activity field, garden and meadow, according to the Hall County staff report.
The initial phase calls for one home that would house four people and one caretaker, the report says.
Also, services that would be offered at the site include counseling, education programs and life skills training.
The ministry’s proposal also calls for a gated entrance and that no visitors will be allowed on site.
“Any visitation with residents will occur at an off-site location,” the report states.
The residents would be women over 18 who are referred to Straight Street through a partner organization.
“The ministry and its partners are working to reduce human trafficking by providing services to victims,” the report says.
One criticism has been exactly who is the clientele.
One of the most vocal residents, Weaver Road resident Donna Clendenning, said during an earlier meeting of neighbors that the term “victims” is often misrepresented.
“Many times, that word is used to make it seem like these people were whisked away against their own wishes,” she said.
“I do know that’s a cover word. These are people who make choices about how they lived, and I feel like the people in our neighborhood are going to have to make a compromise for people who have made decisions that run counter to the decisions we have made, the lifestyles we have worked for.”
“Yes, there are some who have chosen this as a career, but the majority of them probably have not,” Robson said Tuesday night.
Women coming out the lifestyle would be required to go through drug or physical rehabilitation before living on the campus, Robson said.
“Our hopes and prayers are to help these ladies … get back into society and back to real life,” he said.
Several residents said they applauded the group’s work but they simply don’t believe such a development belongs in a residential neighborhood.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be facing this,” Clendenning said. “I can’t think of a single benefit to me and this family if this is in place on Weaver Road. I don’t think that … one church’s ministry or one person’s mission should come at my expense.”
Worries expressed at Tuesday’s meeting also focused on concerns that sex traffickers might try to hunt down women at the complex.
Jennifer Robson of Straight Street said women are easily replaced in the industry, so it’s unlikely they would be pursued.
“It only takes one incident,” Clendenning said.
Tuesday’s meeting featured several emotional moments.
Chase Thomas, holding his son in his arms, talked about his prison past and said, “People who loved me when I was unlovable is why I am here.”
“This is not a matter of our whether property values go down,” he said through tears. “This is a matter of eternal importance.”
The county planning staff is recommending approval of the proposal, with conditions, including that vegetation be installed between the campus and neighboring residential properties.
The planning board’s recommendation will be forwarded to the Hall County Board of Commissioners for a Dec. 8 public hearing and final action.