Pastor pulls plug on plans for program in Chowchilla | The Merced Sun-Star The Merced Sun-Star

A Merced pastor who was planning to open up transitional housing in Chowchilla said he has dumped his plans this week after public outrage turned emotional.

Phil Cheatham, a pastor with The Clay church, was planning to open a group home in the area of Plum Way near Santa Cruz Boulevard in Chowchilla that would attempt to help low-risk offenders to become productive citizens. That is until a Chowchilla City Council meeting on April 28.

A number of residents spoke to the council, expressing opposition to his plans in the neighborhood.

“It was never designed remotely to bring this type of problem,” Cheatham said. “So, I just told them flat out, I’m not doing it. I won’t do it.”

Cheatham, 49, who was a police officer in Chowchilla for 12 years, said he believes that misinformation had an affect on his plans. “They don’t understand the whole concept of the program,” he said.

His program would have been for men released under Assembly Bill 109, also known as the State Prison Realignment Act.

Passed in October 2011, the realignment act transferred responsibility for nonviolent, nonsexual, less serious offenders from the state to the counties to reduce overpopulation in the state’s prisons, authorities have said.

Cheatham said the home would have had no more than six tenants, which, he said, means he was not required to notify neighbors. He said the house would be considered a home, just like any other home, and not a facility.

The city received so many calls from residents that officials placed a statement on the city’s website, which confirmed he was not required to notify neighbors.

That information did little to comfort residents living nearby. Emotions were high in a packed City Council chambers on April 28. A number of residents in the area were concerned about the type of offender who would be enrolled in the program.

Many were upset, because they said the program was sneaking into the neighborhood without first informing the residents.

“It was started up secretly and under the cover of night, hoping the neighborhood wouldn’t notice,” said Shannon Smith, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I am sure you understand why the community isn’t at ease that this is a trustworthy facility.”

Smith, 31, who lives near the group home in question, expressed concerns over changes in property value, the safety of children and whether that type of program could even be successful in town.

Veronica Andrade, 36, said she lives nine houses away from the proposed group home. Cheatham’s word that he’s dropped the plans isn’t good enough, she told the Sun-Star. She’ll reserve her excitment until she’s sure the plans for the house are dead.

Another person who commented during the meeting, Sarah Ortega, also expressed concerns about safety. “We all believe in second chances but we have to think of our children,” she said.

Cheatham said his program would have been safe as the men would have to complete requirements and pass an entrance interview. He stressed that his facility would have been volunteer, so the men in it wanted to be there to better themselves.

His program works with county services, and it’s meant to coach the men to fit in with society. He said the house had already been leased and filled with furniture, but that will change after he pulled the plug on it.

“I just don’t want to deal with it anymore,” he said. “It’s crazy.”


Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at tmiller.

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