Photo: Kenny Robinson

Freedom Fighting Missionaries, a Charlotte-based re-entry program that helps eliminate barriers for the formerly incarcerated, has been awarded $1.3 million to expand its affordable housing efforts. 

The funding will establish Missionary Grove, 16 rentable houses that will be leased according to the area median income (AMI), in east Charlotte. 

The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners awarded grants to 18 other local grassroots organizations to establish more affordable housing. 

Freedom Fighting Missionaries is currently working on several affordable housing projects, including Section Eight housing and plans to construct 40 for-sale homes. The homes will be available to program participants, Kenny Robinson, founder and executive director of Freedom Fighting Missionaries told QCity Metro.

The nonprofit also works closely with the Black Peoples Community Justice Center, an organization that enacts preventative measures to keep people of color out of prison.

Since its formation in January 2020, Freedom Fighting Missionaries has assisted close to 1,400 individuals and served over 200 in 2022, Robinson said. 

He established the organization after seeing a need to help individuals, like himself, who have a criminal record.

At 24, Robinson was incarcerated for a bank robbery and served a ten year sentence in federal prison. 

Upon his release, it was difficult for him to find work and resources. 

“This place is not designed to rehabilitate you or prepare you for your release,” Robinson told QCity Metro when asked what he learned while being incarcerated. 

Robinson, a father of five, was denied by 40 different employers before receiving an opportunity to work at Goodwill for minimum wage, according to the Freedom Fighting Missionaries website

He eventually received an opportunity in the automotive industry and worked his way up to a management position. Robinson then used his leverage as a manager to train and hire formerly incarcerated individuals before pursuing this work full-time.

QCity Metro spoke with Robinson to discuss how the organization plans to use the $1.3 million, its current efforts and progress, and its future goals. 

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

The name of your organization appears faith related. What are the origins of its name?

I chose Freedom Fighting Missionaries because my grandmother was a missionary in her church for 65 years. Freedom is what we are fighting for. Although it’s not classified on paper as a faith-based organization, it is ministry based. There is no way you can do this type of work without the good Lord Himself. We believe that the work we do is missionary-based, which means that you are out in the community; not in a building, in an office or a church.

You requested $5 million. How do you plan to make accommodations for only receiving a portion of the dollars you asked for? 

We already have private funding set up by the Local Initiative Service Corporation (LISC) for this project but it is a loan. The government and private sectors will raise money to assist the community but will issue those funds out as loans. The goal, for us, is to raise the money to have the project completed so that we can take the lender out and not have a mortgage. I’m seeking half a million dollars from the city of Charlotte for this project. I’ll tap into the bank’s foundations and we will utilize our own fundraising efforts. If none of that works, then we’ll have a [loan].

You said that you plan to participate in Section Eight housing. Can you elaborate on this plan? 

Our housing projects serve individuals who are 30-50% AMI. We will collect rent and participate in the Section Eight Housing Choice Voucher Pprogram. Mecklenburg County received 178 emergency housing vouchers due to COVID, and I advocated for those with a criminal background to have access to those vouchers. We were awarded 18 of those 178 vouchers to be shared between our organization, Mecklenburg County Re-Entry Services and the Center for Community Transitions (CCT), who we invited. We ended up with four vouchers, which have all been used. We received three more, which we used and received another three, two of which have been used. 

Are the families that you assist housed in the same area? 

They are dispersed around Charlotte. When we get a landlord to participate in the voucher program, we have to pay double the deposit. We provide supportive services that follow the client and act as a liaison between the landlord and the tenant. The amount of income you bring in determines your out-of-pocket rent cost. The voucher will cover the difference and lasts nine years. 

How does your program enact preventative measures to keep individuals out of prison? 

I’m the co-founder of the Black Peoples Community Justice Center. We provide court support, where we go with families to court and help them navigate the court system. We pack the courtroom with our supporters, some of whom are lawyers and bankers, because everyone behaves differently when they are being watched by people from the community. We provide jail support, which looks like helping people with commissary, and we provide bail support where we raise money to post bail for those who are on poverty bonds. Their bond may be $20,000 or less and could get out if they could afford to. When we assist those individuals, we steer them away from an active sentence in prison where they then enter into the Freedom Fighting Missionaries re-entry program. 

How will these funds change Freedom Fighting Missionaries in its ability to fulfill its mission? 

We plan to provide other housing options which will lead individuals onto a pathway to be a homeowner. This current project for this funding is one piece of the journey. The families who live in the rentable homes will enter into our partnership that we have with Dream Key Partners, funded by the city of Charlotte. They will receive financial literacy training, credit repair, homeownership counseling and will receive a certificate to qualify for down payment assistance. We have another project that we are working on to construct 40 homes for sale with price points between $250,000 and $310,000.

Daija Peeler covers arts, culture, and faith in Charlotte.

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