Calvin brings CPI housing plan to concerned neighborhood

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Jill Devries

CPI students will be tasked with caring for Calvin’s community garden if the move to the Garden House is approved.

Todd Cioffi never imagined that he would be able to help returning citizens reintegrate into society when he started working with the Calvin Prison Initiative. Now, he’s working to provide housing for returning citizens in Calvin’s Garden House, and facing opposition. Though no formal decision has been made, CPI students could move into the Garden House as early as July 2022 and no later than August 2022 if the proposed plan is approved.

“When we started CPI, the goal was never to be involved in reentry,” Cioffi, who serves as the program’s director, told Chimes in an exclusive interview. “The reason was that the aim of the program is to raise up leaders in the prison site to equip them and support them in being either Christian leaders and/or Christian and moral leaders.”

Cioffi saw a need to address reentry as a number of students from the program took steps to  navigate life after decades of isolation following parole releases.. Most of these students struggled to find affordable housing and consistent transportation following their release. “If you’ve been locked out 25 to 30 years and you get out, there are many things you don’t recognize anymore in society,” said Cioffi. “Any way that we can simplify that for the first six months to a year, I think, really contributes to a successful reentry.”  

Cioffi and the CPI team began brainstorming ways to assist students in regaining their footing, as many of them were either completing their associates degree through the CPI program or pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Calvin. “Lo and behold, one of our [Knollcrest campus] students who is an intern for CPI happens to live in the Garden House and said, ‘you need the Garden House.’” 

The house on Hampshire Avenue, just west of campus, has been a sanctuary for upperclass students who aspire to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle since 2017. Located near the Spoelhof Fieldhouse, its close proximity to campus and affordability make it a good fit for the CPI. But what made the Garden House the perfect space for its potential residents was the intentional living behind it.

“A lot of these students are passionate about gardening already because they worked in the garden in the prison and for them it’s a natural connection to help take care of the garden on campus, and they would have lots of mentors. This is a unique opportunity for them,” said Jay Wise, director of college housing and operations

After Cioffi brought the idea to Wise, Wise then approached administration and surveyed staff and faculty members who lived in the area per Cioffi’s request. The response? “Everything came back positive,” according to Cioffi. “Everything I hear from the Calvin side in terms of this house … I hear nothing but support, excitement; there’s eagerness to embrace this.” 

This excitement, however, has not served as an official greenlight for the transition, as Cioffi and Wise both wanted to confirm that residents of the surrounding neighborhood were on board with opening up the Garden House to three to four CPI students. After compiling an FAQ in hopes to answer any questions residents would have, Wise and Cioffi went door to door to speak with neighbors who lived near the Garden House. Their efforts elicited a wide range of responses, with some neighbors reluctant but accepting of the decision, while others were adamantly opposed. 

“We canvassed as much as we could, we allotted two hours to do so. We did have our contact information and that’s when some people would email or call … I’d say the people who emailed or called were the folks who had the bigger concerns.” said Cioffi. 

Cioffi and Wise are in the midst of conducting a “transparent conversation” between Calvin and the neighborhood about the decision. A one-hour town hall meeting with neighbors and Calvin will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 9 as part of their attempts to “help [the neighborhood] understand what the CPI program is and understand who these guys are.”

The decision to move CPI students into the Garden House is not a decision that is being made lightly, according to Cioffi, as a huge amount of trust has been established between the students and Calvin. 

These aren’t just prisoners that just got out that we don’t know. These are people that we’ve known quite well for years … we feel very comfortable putting the guys in the house because we know them so well.”

— Todd Cioffi

“I would never, ever put someone in a house or a neighborhood if I thought that person would harm people.” said Cioffi

According to Cioffi, moving the CPI students into the Garden House is not a university helping students, but rather friends helping friends. And, while he recognizes that it may take some time, he is encouraging residents of the neighboring community to trust not only him, but Calvin as well. “We’re asking you to trust us as a Christian institution, as people who intimately work with and care about these students and this program and care about the neighborhood.”

Those with questions about the CPI Garden House move are encouraged to contact Wise at [email protected] or Cioffi at [email protected]