There's No Place Like Prison

Phillips families were already worried about the parolees next door. Then the headless corpse turned up.

In 1997, fed up with the lack of support available to ex-convicts, Davis decided to strike out on his own. To make 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life a reality, Davis did not send out grant applications, solicit donors by mail, or even ask people to drop spare change into a tin can. He started hawking dollar wieners outside of a Rainbow Foods grocery store on Memorial Day weekend, 1997. With an overhead of 54 cents per hot dog, he figured he was onto something and decided to stand outside a different grocery store every weekend. Before fall turned to winter, Davis managed to start selling as many as 500 hot dogs per weekend.

That December he was attending a meeting at DoC headquarters in St. Paul to discuss the difficulties of finding housing for former inmates. What's the solution? Davis remembers bluntly asking the speaker that day. There is no solution, was the response. "At that point it occurred to me," he says. "With the money I made from the hot-dog sales, I'm going to buy a house."

The very next day he got wind of the duplex on 13th Avenue South in Phillips; by January he had purchased it for $39,900. "I didn't like the look of it. I didn't think it was in very good shape. But I thought, 'This is a start,'" Davis says. "The day I closed, I had a guy moving in."

Soon, anywhere from four to six people were living at the 13th Avenue property. Davis then purchased another duplex in the Phillips neighborhood and began housing ex-felons there as well. Last year, Davis bought a third property in northeast Minneapolis. 9 to 5 now provides shelter to from 10 to 12 ex-convicts at a time, and Davis is looking for a fourth house in St. Paul.

Tom (a convicted sex offender who would not reveal his last name) lived at 2609 13th Avenue for two months last spring, before buying a home of his own in the northern suburbs. "I went out searching, and every place I went to they said, 'You've got a felony, we don't want you,'" he says. "When I rented from Mike Davis, I needed a place to stay right away and he took me in."

Barb Pratt got involved with the organization as a volunteer after reading an article about Davis last year in the community newspaper Southside Pride. Pratt, who had been searching for a way to do something about the lack of affordable housing in the Twin Cities, was inspired by Davis's gumption. She has even hawked root beer for the cause. "He's committed beyond a normal human being," Pratt gushes. "I have a feeling Mike is always outside the system a little. He doesn't fit nicely at a desk doing what he's told."

Despite the slow soda sales, 9 to 5 has flourished without soliciting a penny. The bulk of the organization's funds come through rent collected from tenants. Davis has also brought in substantial revenue from selling a series of instructional books and videos that he created to help prisoners make the transition to civilian life. In addition he is working on a line of seasonings (e.g., Bad Boy Garlic Hot Sauce). And the hot-dog cart still gets rolled out for the odd neighborhood festival.

While few can be found to criticize Davis's entrepreneurial approach, 9 to 5's philosophy has raised eyebrows. Davis does not provide any services to his tenants--no employment counseling or drug and alcohol treatment. He offers a roof and four walls.

By way of contrast, St. Stephen's Housing Services, which operates five group homes for ex-convicts in Minneapolis, keeps a tight leash on its residents. Employees of the nonprofit organization make random visits to the houses anywhere from two to four times a week, according to Troy Howard, a case manager at St. Stephen's. In addition residents are required to have a job and are prohibited from drinking alcohol on the premises. "It's better to catch a baby monster than to wait until he becomes a big monster," Howard explains.

But even St. Stephen's has trouble finding space for level-three sex offenders. The organization has to rent the houses where it shelters former inmates, and Howard says that property owners often balk at allowing tenants who have to go through the community-notification process. "It's not that we don't take them," he says. "We just find them harder to place."

Since Davis owns his property, he can house whomever he wants. He is proud to provide shelter to the least desirable tenants, and unapologetic about his laissez-faire approach to supervision. His credo is simple: "We don't supervise you; we provide an opportunity. The rest is up to you."

 

Two days before an arrest warrant was issued for Darnell Smith, Davis began working to have him evicted. The landlord didn't know that Bobby Holder had been murdered--yet. But he knew something was amiss.

Right after Smith moved in at the beginning of June, Davis had noticed a steady, heavy stream of female traffic going in and out of the duplex. "It seemed like there was a brothel going on in there," he says. Once, when Davis stopped by the house, Smith was watching a pornographic video. "He was obsessed with sex," he concludes.

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