Every Sunday, more than 1,000 Mercy Culture congregants flood into the Oakhurst area. The sprawling campus, dominated by large white buildings, attracts people from across Fort Worth. Primarily a place of worship, the church wants another use for its property — sheltering survivors of sex trafficking.
After launching the church with her husband in April 2019, Mercy Culture Pastor Heather Schott started a nonprofit called The Justice Reform in 2020 with the goal of ending sex trafficking in the region. Last October, the organization hosted its inaugural Justice Run, a music festival and charity race aimed at raising funds to support survivors.
Organizers pressed ahead on plans to create a three-story, 100 bed restoration home until neighbors, who question the safety and legitimacy of the project, mounted a strong opposition against the shelter.
Developers for the project were expected to present it in front of the zoning commission April 13. City staff previously recommended denial of the project, arguing the land is not suitable for the use requested and that the restoration home is not consistent with the area’s comprehensive plan.
As opposition from neighbors continued to grow, The Justice Reform withdrew its application April 8 to the zoning commission. The organization would like additional time to speak with residents and gather information before finalizing the project, said Cameron Ehn, the civil engineer on the project.
Chanin Scanlon, president of the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association, suspects Justice Reform leaders are regrouping before pushing forward with their plans. Her group will continue to fight the project, Scanlon said, and plans to attend the April 13 meeting to ensure there will be opposition if the case is discussed. The project was still listed on the meeting’s agenda as of Friday.
“One of the council members recently kind of warned somebody about that and said, ‘Until a decision has been made, you need to be here,’” Scanlon said.
“I think they’re just trying to regroup and try to say face and then continue to do it,” Scanlon said. “We’ll just continue to fight.”
The proposed 13-acre development in the far north corner of the church’s property would function as long-term housing for survivors. The development would cut into a tree line and hill that separates Mercy Culture’s property from the historic Oakhurst neighborhood, located just northeast of downtown Fort Worth.
Residents of Oakhurst have expressed concerns about the safety of the project, increased parking problems and suitability of the location for a high-security restoration home.
“It has nothing to do with their religion or their practices or their beliefs,” Scanlon said. “And it’s not even an issue of whether we even want them to do this or not; it has nothing to do with that. It is purely a location issue. That is a bad location for their victims. I don’t care what they say.”
If you go:
Zoning commission meeting: Wednesday, April 13, 2022 at 12:00 p.m. in City Council Chambers, 200 Texas St, Fort Worth 76102
Schott, who spoke with the Report prior to the application being withdrawn, said The Justice Residences are an essential part of her calling as a Christian. Her concern for human trafficking is borne out of her belief that the church is called to reach out to people who are hurting and broken.
“A lot of these girls have been abused in the most horrific ways, and they have been brainwashed,” Schott said. “What is so special about church is it restores people’s hope and faith and it’s in something that’s greater than humanity. It’s in the Lord.”
Residents raise concerns about parking
Scanlon first heard about the project from then-mayoral candidate Steve Penate, a real estate agent and founding pastor of Mercy Culture. Scanlon remembers telling Penate that Oakhurst residents were going to want to learn more about the project.
A packed informational meeting, held on the Mercy Culture campus on March 31, affirmed her assumption. Residents expressed concerns about the parking and safety issues the development could pose to the neighborhood.
On Sundays, Scanlon said, churchgoers often park illegally in no-parking zones, fire zones and in green spaces on residential properties and urban parkland on Oakhurst Scenic Drive, which runs alongside Interstate 35.
Schott responded that the church would not lose any parking spots because of The Justice Residences.
The church runs a food pantry weekly out of church property. Traffic is five times worse on those days compared to Sundays, Mark Taylor, food bank director, said. Church leadership said it hadn’t heard any complaints from neighbors about traffic issues before the zoning conflict.
Some parking spots will be lost because of the development, Ehn, the civil engineer of the project, said. While the building itself will not occupy any spaces currently used for parking, the designated parking for staff at the facility will include spaces currently used for church parking.
“Those (spots) will be behind the gate, and you won’t be able to access those, so you are losing the use of those spaces for churchgoers,” Ehn said.
Developers will be able to lessen some of those parking losses by re-striping areas of the parking lot not already used for parking, Ehn said. A shed on the church property will also be removed to be used for additional parking spaces.
“The number of spaces available is still significantly over the required amount of parking spaces for our site,” he said.
Neighbors, church disagree on potential danger posed by project
Neighbors also have safety concerns, for both the women who might reside in the facility and the surrounding community.
The property sits next to Interstate 35 West, which stretches from Kansas to the southern border of Texas. Scanlon pointed to a truck stop and hotel near Mercy Culture that could be avenues for the women to be trafficked again.
“The location is not good for this. They need quiet retreat outside of the hustle and bustle of the city,” Scanlon said.
Schott, founder of the Justice Reform, said these concerns are not legitimate. Traffickers are likely to be less intimidated by a restoration home that is inconspicuous or in a remote location. In her experience. The most successful models are out in the open, she said.
“So what do they think? That if a girl is 20 miles north that she can’t go back into trafficking?” Schott asked.
Women who want to leave the property will have a police escort, Schott said. She added that this concern is not unique to Mercy Culture since many restoration home locations she has studied are surrounded by hotels and truck stops.
“She’s not just going to be walking off of our property,” Schott said. “That’s, again, why there’s not legitimacy to their question. They have these fabricated ideas of a guy pulling up and pulling girls out or a girl just walking off the premises and into their yard.”
Taylor, Mercy Culture’s food bank director, said whether a restoration home is in isolation or not will not be the deciding factor forfor whether someone will go back into the world of sex trafficking. No matter where survivors are, what matters most is their commitment to a new life.
“If they aren’t willing to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘I’m not going back,’ you can’t stop them from going back” to that world,” Taylor said. “I don’t care where you are.”
The residence, which will be three stories tall, will be equipped with a fence, 24/7 security and security cameras around the residence and property, Schott said.
“Do you think if you’re a trafficker you’re walking up into a place like this?” Schott asked the crowd at the March 31 informational meeting. “You might as well turn yourself in.”
Neighbors are not convinced. A majority of residents and members of the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association voted against the development. In total, 18 of 266 residents who participated in the vote were in favor of the Justice Reform project. The rest voted against the project.
“I think that they’re deluding themselves if they think that that’s not going to be a security risk for those students (of nearby Calvary Christian Academy), and or a security risk for the kids to play in our neighborhood or down in Riverside Park,” Scanlon said.
The neighborhood faces struggles with crime, said Catherine Simpson, Oakhurst resident and assistant prosecutor with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She’s concerned that the residences will pull police resources away from the neighborhood and drive crime numbers up.
“There’s crazy stuff happening” on the outskirts of Oakhurst,” Simpson said.
Schott argued that the organization had already outlined multiple measures to ensure security on the property.
“I don’t believe it’s a legitimate concern,” Schott said. “I think that it doesn’t matter what I say, I gave a very thorough presentation on what all their concerns were previously… And then they find more things to keep arguing about.”
Law enforcement offers verbal support
During the public meeting, Schott said the residences would be in partnership with the Tarrant County Sherriff’s department as well as the Fort Worth Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which have units dedicated to investigating human trafficking.
Later, in a conversation with the Report, Schott clarified that the partnership she was referencing isn’t a formal agreement with law enforcement but the general support for the project from the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and Fort Worth Police Department. However, off-duty police officers help direct traffic on Sundays, and she said officers are often close by through their normal beat coverage.
“The sheriff has supported us very heavily from the very beginning,” Schott said.
The Fort Worth Police Department said they do not have a formal agreement with the church to conduct drive-throughs or provide security.
“While we are not in a partnership with Mercy Culture Church, a member of the Fort Worth Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit did participate in a joint jurisdiction human trafficking presentation at Mercy Culture Church approximately one year ago,” the department said in a statement.
Schott confirmed that members of sex trafficking task force on the city and county level have educated church members about human trafficking in informational sessions.
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn has been a vocal supporter of The Justice Residences. At the March 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the proopsed restoration home, Waybourn addressed the crowd and described a pressing need for human trafficking services in Tarrant County.
“This county has been starving for this,” Waybourn said. “As long as God keeps me in this appointed position, I will be here for your church.”
Waybourn’s individual support for the residences does not equate to material support from the sheriff’s office to the church. Although the sheriff’s department supports the mission of the organization, the groups are not connected, said department spokeswoman Jennifer Gabbert.
“The sheriff’s office is not involved in that project,” Gabbert said.
Along with a consistent police and hired security presence, buy-in from the community could help promote the security of the facility, Schott said. If neighbors were willing to remain vigilant, the residence could become fully enmeshed in the community and further deter traffickers from the property.
“This is why we’re really disappointed in how Oakhurst is responding,” Schott said. “But … we still want to have hope that people are going to turn their hearts.”
Residents said they don’t feel the church is open to meaningful communication about the proposed project.
“(Schott) has posted on her Instagram page as well that she’s not planning on giving us an inch,” Scanlon said.
Church seeks to fill hole in local resources
In Tarrant County, several organizations provide services for sex trafficking survivors, but none provides the sort of long-term community housing Mercy Culture envisions. Among the current organizations in the area are Unbound and The Net FW. Unbound provides a drop-in center for victims, but it’s reserved for those 22 years of age or younger and doesn’t function as long-term housing.
In recent years, Fort Worth has funneled resources toward initiatives aimed at stopping trafficking. One of those initiatives is the Tarrant County 5-Stones Taskforce, organized by the Fort Worth Police Department. It works to gather various government entities and community organizations together to end the sex trafficking of minors.
Felicia Grantham, the department and task force’s human trafficking coordinator, said both entities are trying to remain neutral on the topic.
“Our goal is to have agencies and organizations from the community feel welcome to come and collaborate, learn from each other and basically meet together and network together on a regular basis,” she said. “So we want to leave that door open for them.”
Regular attendees include Unbound, Cheryl’s Voice, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Worth City Credit Union. Several churches, including Christ Chapel Bible Church and Kaleo International, are also involved.
Grantham said Justice Reform leaders had been invited to attend the task force’s monthly meetings, but she didn’t believe they had attended one yet. Schott said that, because of the nonprofit’s limited staff, it could not have a staff member at every task force meeting.
“We are still a fairly new organization ourselves in the city,” Schott said. “So there’s a lot of relationships all around, you know, from our governor’s office to task force meetings to everybody. So we haven’t reached out in every area in building those relationships.”
Zoning commission decision pushed back multiple times
The zoning change application request was first submitted to the city in January. Winter weather got the better of an initial plan for church leaders and neighborhood residents to meet and discuss the plan, necessitating a 30-day extension to March 9.
When the day came, however, the architect overseeing the zoning application told commissioners that winter weather had again postponed the scheduled meeting. Another 30-day continuance was issued, placing the next public hearing on the matter April 13.
Now that the application is withdrawn, the Justice Reform will have to reapply with updated plans.
In the March meeting, commissioner Wanda Conlin expressed concern that approving plans for a restoration home in the area without securing a conditional use permit would violate zoning regulations.
The zoning process
Zoning applications are reviewed by the zoning commission. The commission will vote to either recommend approval or denial to Fort Worth City Council. The council has the final say on whether the application is approved.
A conditional use permit is a zoning tool that allows an owner to use property in a way not otherwise allowed within the current zoning district. According to a city presentation, conditional use permits are a possible solution to adding a single use to an existing planned development.
Under the terms of the conditional use permit, City Council members could set an expiration date or revoke the permit “for poor behavior or operation, inaction, or discontinuance of use,” according to a city presentation.
Currently, the church’s property is zoned as a planned development district specifically for religious purposes. The application is asking for an additional use on the property to allow the restoration home’s construction and use, but does not ask for a conditional use permit.
Conlin said a continuance would waste the zoning commission’s time if the change requires an entirely new permit.
“Over and over again, the applicant has told us this is a shelter,” Conlin said.
City staff said that because of the way the current planned development is structured, it would be possible to amend it to include group homes.
Pastor calls opponents ‘evil’ as tensions rise
When neighbors and Mercy Culture leaders finally met, it was in a packed meeting room on Mercy Culture’s campus filled with about 100 audience members.
Schott led the hour-long meeting that explained the need for restoration homes devoted to sex trafficking victims. When residents arrived at the meeting, Mercy Culture staff urged them to write their questions on pieces of paper that were then delivered to Schott at the end of the meeting. She spent 15 minutes answering questions, which frustrated Scanlon.
“It wasn’t a communication. It was a sermon. It was a lecture,” Scanlon said. “They blatantly avoided our questions, and then they told us to get out.”
Neighbors also accused the church of refusing to answer questions they submitted. Before ending the meeting, a church member explained some of the questions were removed because they were duplicates, already addressed or “not appropriate for this time.”
Heather Schott pushed back on accusations of not answering resident questions.
“The meeting was derailed because people started getting accusatory,” she said. “The accusation became, ‘They handpicked all these notes and refused to answer questions,’ when I just gave an hour presentation.”
The relationship between residents and the church has grown more contentious since the meeting.
In an April 2 Instagram post, Landon Schott wrote that if anyone is resisting helping “the most abused victims in our community, it’s only because they’re EVIL!” Heather Schott said she has received threats from opponents of the project. Scanlon said Mercy Culture representatives are also behind the rising tensions.
“The more that we tend to fight it, the more verbally aggressive they get,” Scanlon said. “There’s a lot of vitriol coming out of there.”
If neighbors are willing to put aside their anger, The Justice Reform staff would be happy to set up calls and meetings with concerned residents, Schott said.
Scanlon has been encouraged by support from neighbors and the Riverside Alliance, a group of neighborhoods in east Fort Worth that includes Oakhurst. The group has a history of effectively advocating for and against zoning changes within the alliance.
Rick Herring, the moderator of the Riverside Alliance, and other residents plan to argue against the development to the zoning commission Wednesday.
Vanessa Hector, Schott’s personal assistant, confirmed The Justice Reform withdrew its application but provided no further comment. Justice Reform continues to fundraise for the residences, with plans to host a charity golf tournament five days after the April 13 zoning hearing.
“I don’t think that they have ever intended on really communicating with the neighborhood in any way,” Scanlon said.
From Heather Schott’s perspective, communication has stalled for a different reason:
“I don’t think I’m going to have an answer that pleases them.”
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