Chattanoogan: Tim Dempsey – Amazing Grace

Saturday, January 18, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

The song “Amazing Grace” was written by English sailor and clergyman John Newton who had been involved with the slave trade before his Christian conversion. Amazing Grace is not only sung with our voices, but it is to be felt with our hearts. The common denominator in the history or this song and Tim Dempsey is the acknowledgement of grace no matter what someone has done. Tim is on a mission to help those who have taken a wrong turn to find such grace.

While growing up with a privileged upbringing in Arlington, Va., Tim attended the prestigious Potomac School in McLean, Va. He had classmates such as the sons of Bobby Kennedy and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and spent endless summers on Cape Cod.

Though his attorney father introduced him to several people of influence, Tim also gained a wealth of knowledge on the ‘other side of the tracks’ as his mother was very involved in social issues and programs.

“I spent quite a bit of time in soup kitchens and following my mother around on her volunteer work - which included weekly visits to Mary Shelburne who was the ‘Lady’ in CS Lewis’s ‘Letters to an American Lady’,” Tim says.

It was during his senior year when he was directed toward the path he would follow and it ignited his passion for social justice.

“I moved into a halfway house my senior year. After undergraduate school at Notre Dame, I came to Chattanooga to open up Dismas House - the city’s first re-entry program,” Tim says.

Tim met his wife Becky while he was at Dismas House and she was working across the street at Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The two had similar interests, “…and she was cute!” Tim interjects.

After marrying, the couple headed back to DC so he could complete his masters at Catholic University. When they moved back to Chattanooga, Tim continued his work at Dismas House to expand the program to include more readiness programming and eventually turn it into an alternative staffing program.

The staffing program paid those who trained for jobs while the company where they trained would pay Chattanooga Endeavors a fee which generated approximately $50,000 a year. In 2011, the program was eliminated a year after FBI statistics disclosed that Chattanooga had the third-highest crime rate in the state.

“I am now working with a small group of five former offenders to recreate Chattanooga Endeavors as a non-funded, volunteer-driven, continuum of care service that supports prisoners in Hamilton County from the beginning of their incarceration to their successful return home and the families they have left behind,” Tim says. “At the same time I’m working with other non-profit organizations on larger projects such as a two-year, city-wide crime reduction initiative in Milwaukee based on the work we were doing at Chattanooga Endeavors with community building.”

Chattanooga Endeavors has worked with approximately 3,000 former offenders with most of them staying out of prison and they continue to lead responsible lives. Tim strongly believes the re-entry program made a great contribution to public safety while it existed in that format, but it was hard to fund.

“There were very generous people in the community to help, but mostly the money came from federal and state grants,” Tim says.

“When we experienced difficulty raising money it was during the recession and people really had to choose their cause. We have done a number of public surveys on this and it is the general sentiments of the people in Chattanooga to believe that people deserve second chances and that former offenders can succeed. But they also believe the government should fund re-entry programs. It isn’t that they don’t value the work, but they don’t believe it is their place to fund it,” Tim acknowledges.  

By off-loading the problem to the government Tim feels it only adds to the problems with the crime rate.

“The reality is that 98 percent of people who are incarcerated will eventually come back to the place where they left from - so they are coming back home here and, whether or not we acknowledge that we have a stake in their success – we do,” Tim vows.

According to Tim, felons will either succeed or they won’t and, if the community is looking for a place to try to get the crime rate down, the most direct place to do that is to with people who have been incarcerated that have been returned to the community.

“Those are the most likely to re-offend and, when people re-offend they always re-offend at a higher level,” he insists. “If you stop people from re-offending you end up investing in a clear and strategic way to get the crime rate down. People don’t typically look at it that way. They would rather just look in another direction and hope that it goes away.”

Though Tim doesn’t feel that Endeavors would have prevented the city’s crime rate from escalating, he does believe it would have been a factor in developing a much lower crime rate.

Living at the halfway house allowed Tim to individualize the issues as he learned first-hand the reasons behind the crime. 

“I was not involved with a collection of people, trends and percentages, but I was involved with a single person who was experiencing incarceration and re-entry, trying to build their lives up again and I thought there has got to be a better way,” Tim says.

“People that are disadvantaged, and marginalized and stigmatized …it just doesn’t make any sense for us to expect them to do things that they can’t do - they need help,” Tim declares.

When Tim witnessed what a prisoner deals with day in and day out, it changed his perspective greatly.

“I couldn’t believe that we were treating people like they weren’t human beings. If you think with your heart, it verges on torture. Punitive segregation can take up to 18 months to get out on your best behavior. What they are subjected to on an ongoing basis – sitting alone in a cage not coming out except a single hour a day and no time to interact with anyone else - that is psychological torture. I couldn’t understand how we could call that justice,” Tim says.

“The reality is people get angry with criminals because they have brought harm to another person… it is natural for people to want to hold them accountable and pay it back. It is short sighted to make that payment by punishing in a way that they become more likely to do it again. Now that they are out, what do they need? Because getting out is one thing …staying out is an entirely different thing,” he maintains.

As Tim saw the needs of those he witnessed in reformation, it became a passion for him to stand up for them and be their voice as he worked to educate the public with the reality of the problem.

The reality is these people are human beings. The reality is that they are being thrown away while others turn their head. And the bottom line of this reality is the crime rate is going up and offenders without assistance are becoming re-offenders.

“What we are trying to do to safeguard the community is to get them to not do it again and we can’t expect that by making them a worse person when they are incarcerated. We want to make them a better person. We want to do one of two things – lock them up and throw away the key if they are that bad (and I am not opposed to that). There are people who have done things that are bad enough and who continue to do things that you do lock them up for the rest of their life, but there are people who aren’t like that. For the rest of the people who are coming home, if what we have done is created a bigger monster than helping somebody heal, we just aggravate the problem,” Tim says.

“In actuality, we have become… well, I don’t want to say that we play a role in it but we have not created a situation where they are less likely to re-offend. We are playing a role in making it more likely to re-offend, because these people have had an experience that has made them worse of a person instead of us trying to make them better,” Tim acknowledges.

Tim has taken a lot of grief from those who deem this cause as ‘unworthy’ when there are so many other causes to care about, but he stands firm in believing what his gut tells him is right.

“I view some of these projects as almost a leper colony. There is a lot to be said for a community’s ability to incorporate people that are marginalized back into the mainstream – it says a lot about us whether we can do it or whether we can’t. It is not a popular cause and it is not something people like to do. They like to blame and not help.” Tim says. “Not to say that there aren’t people out there who do help and some of the best volunteers and some of the best not for profits that I can imagine have come forward to help these kind of projects – but you need the best of the best.”

Tim never thought of himself better than another person no matter what privilege life has afforded him. Living in the half-way house during his senior project made a decisive impact on his life’s focus.

“I will go into a prison thinking I am going to help somebody, and I am the one who comes out with grace. Not just religious grace, but that deep human grace… I get more out of the experience and it always benefits me personally than what I can give,” he enlightens.

“That was part of the experience living in the halfway house. People coming from the University of Notre Dame are pretty much from affluent backgrounds. So the ability for people from different walks of life to find something in common and to grow together was very powerful,” Tim says. “It made me feel whole and a part of something bigger.”

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