by Chris Rogers
Part one in a series
Prior to July 2013, Winona County apparently mishandled state funds — likely tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars — meant for housing disabled adults by giving it to people with no documented disability. In correcting its apparent error and cutting funding for those ineligible people, the county displaced 17 men who had been relying on it for stable food and housing at two local halfway houses, leaving some of them homeless.
The halfway houses were valued by parole officers and county officials for their role in helping ex-inmates become working citizens, not repeat offenders. There was one problem, though: the men were not disabled and thus not legally eligible for the state funding the county had been giving them: up to $877 per month per person. This had been going on for several years, by many accounts.
County officials informed the men and the halfway houses six weeks before cutting their funding.
County officials knew at least seven months prior to the funding cut that something was wrong with the way they were distributing the money and determining eligibility for the program, according to emails obtained by the Winona Post. Five months before breaking the news to the halfway houses and the men, county officials knew exactly what was wrong and had already planned to cut the funding.
When that plan was finally announced to the halfway houses and directors, it was a bombshell. "I got called into the office under the pretext that we were going to be discussing some things," recalled Pastor Warren Green, the director of the Winona-based halfway house, Fresh Start. Then, "everybody got ambushed," he said. Green and Al Rothering, the director of the Minnesota City-based Second Chance halfway house, had been in regular contact with county officials about other issues, but this was the first whisper they had heard of this major news: many of the men staying with them would lose funding. The news came as a surprise to some local corrections officers, as well, who were working with parolees residing at the halfway houses.
The 17 men themselves received letters announcing that they did not qualify for the funding they had been relying on for months and gave them five weeks to secure doctors' appointments and submit forms proving any mental illnesses, chemical dependencies, or other disabilities that would have legally qualified them for the program. Many of those men did have undiagnosed mental health issues, addictions, and other disabilities that would have legally qualified them for funding, but "you can't make an appointment with any doctor the next day," said Green. He said that making an appointment for a mental health evaluation can take a month to two months.
Making matters worse, the residents did not really understand their options, Green said. "Whenever you tell someone who has a ninth-, tenth-grade education, 'you have to be out on this date,' they are not reading the fine print that 'you can appeal this.'" These were men who were used to asking prison guards for permission to use the restroom; they did not understand their rights in the process, he said.
St. John's Catholic Church Deacon Justin Green, who is a Fresh Start board member, asked the county to give the men more time. "Some of the residents face substantial challenges in relocating," he wrote in an letter to County Administrator Duane Hebert after the announcement. "Several are sex offenders, and I need not comment any further on the difficulties they will face in our community, indeed, in every community, in finding appropriate housing." Justin Green asked Hebert for two more months to let the men find new housing. "Sixty days is not too long for people with scant resources to find housing, nor is it too long for employees to find other positions. Fresh Start has been operating in this community under the Group Residential Housing (GRH) program for many years. Surely no great harm will be done by adopting a schedule that gives everyone a chance to consider options," he stated.
Justin Green's request was not granted. Of the men who were displaced by the funding cut, "some went back to jail; a lot of them got back in trouble," Warren Green said.
When asked why the county did not inform residents and halfway houses that they were ineligible and lacked proof of disability as soon as the county became aware of it, in December 2012, Hebert noted that getting clarification from the state took time and that the department was also dealing with a management transition.
"What the county is doing kind of makes me angry," said a former halfway house resident, referring to the funding cut. "If felons don't have a permanent address, they're going back [to jail]," simple as that, he said. The man was not displaced himself, but said that in fixing its own mistake, the county had left many men high and dry. "They can't blame Pastor Green. They can't blame Rothering. They can only blame themselves," he said.
Behind the scenes
On December 14, 2012, five months before the county broke the news to residents and halfway houses, Lisa McNally, a county human services supervisor, emailed county workers who determined GRH eligibility. McNally explained that she and other high-ranking staff members were discussing the halfway houses and the GRH eligibility issue at length. "We are trying to move forward with a plan for these two facilities," she wrote. "At some point in the near future, we will be telling them we will no longer pay for clients who do not meet a [General Assistance] basis for GRH." General Assistance is another state aid program that requires proof of disability, like GRH. "Duane [Hebert] is leading this, so continue to do what you have, but know it is being worked on," she told the county GRH eligibility workers.
Meanwhile, county officials, including Hebert, were in regular contact with Warren Green and Justin Green about other issues relating to Fresh Start for months. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) was also involved, seeking changes to Fresh Start's agreement with residents that made it clear they could file complaints about the halfway house with the county, not just with Warren Green and the Fresh Start board. However, according to Warren Green, there was no mention of the eligibility problems. A search of county communications from the time also indicates that county officials were discussing the GRH eligibility issues in private, but not mentioning them in ongoing communications with Fresh Start.
'Rubber stamped' for years?
Like many public assistance programs, GRH is state-funded and county-run. The county is responsible for determining eligibility and approving eligible applicants for funding, who then are able to use that funding to stay at licensed GRH facilities.
To qualify, recipients must have a doctor or other expert certify that they are unable to work because of advanced age, physical injury, a mental illness, chemical dependency, a developmental disability, or other disability that prevents them from working. For example, GRH funds various adult foster care homes in the Winona area serving developmentally disabled adults.
While many convicts struggle with mental illness and chemical dependency — diagnosed or otherwise — and while being an ex-felon in and of itself can be a huge barrier to employment, being a recently released inmate alone does not qualify ex-offenders for GRH.
Yet, according to many accounts, that appears to have been the system in the Winona County for years. "You turned in the combined application and the county rubber stamped it," said a former halfway house resident of being approved for GRH prior to July 2013. The Combined Application Form is used to determine household income and other basic facts for most assistance programs in Minnesota. However, proof of illness or disability, usually submitted via another state form signed by a doctor, is required to qualify for GRH. The county never asked for that or asked whether he was certified as disabled, the former resident said. Another former resident reported the same. Neither were diagnosed with disabilities when they received GRH funding from the county that enabled them to stay at the halfway houses.
"I don't recall one person being turned down," Rothering said of former residents seeking GRH funding.
"The county knows they have a need for housing for people who are just out of prison," one of the former residents said. "This was a way for them to provide that."
In November 2012, while county staff were apparently still approving non-disabled ex-offenders for GRH, Karen Bunkowski, a community services supervisor, correctly explained the eligibility requirements for GRH in emails with Steele County officials who were seeking advice. "There are seven ways a person can qualify for GRH and they are related to having a disability of some type," she wrote. The applicant "must demonstrate evidence/proof of the qualifying disability in some manner," she stated. Bunkowski continued, explaining that in recent years Winona County had started approving people for GRH who did not meet the typical profile of a GRH recipient. "We are currently working to find a better way to support the determination of eligibility for GRH," she explained, adding that changes were on the way. "Sorry for the long response," she told the Steele County official. "This is kind of one of the hot topics/important topics right now for me."
Around the same time, lower on the chain of command, one county employee who handled GRH cases suspected something was wrong, writing to another low-level coworker, "This is such a weird thing with Second Chance and Fresh Start for GRH." The employee continued, "Yeah, the whole Fresh Start/Second Chance agreement with Winona County gets confusing. It is good to have places like them; however, I'm not really sure they should get GRH funding. Doesn't seem like other counties have GRHs like this."
At some point, someone in government realized there was a big problem with GRH eligibility in Winona County. In response to inquiries by the Winona Post immediately after the funding cut, Hebert barred county employees who were directly involved in GRH from speaking to the press. He fielded questions, saying that the DHS had initiated conversations about the problem and that DHS officials came down and "strongly encouraged" the county to comply with state rules. It was state money after all.
The Winona Post was also unable to speak with the DHS officials directly involved. A spokeswoman for the DHS said that the county had brought the problem to the state's attention and sought its help in resolving it.
In a recent interview, Hebert said that the problem "was identified as we had a management turnover." A former supervisor was replaced and as the successor took over, "questions were raised about this whole program," he explained. In the spring of 2013, the county went to state for clarification on how the program worked, and the state "strongly encouraged" compliance with state rules, as Hebert put it in a previous interview, but did not investigate the county or ask for its money back. Hebert said he was unaware whether the state had discussed any consequences for the county.
DHS officials did not respond to questions before the Winona Post went to press.
How was the county able to approve GRH funding for men without documented disabilities? Hebert said the documentation might exist somewhere, but the county did not conduct an audit "to truly verify" the documentation was never provided. If halfway houses' and former recipients' assertions that the county never asked for proof of disability and that approvals for non-disabled applicants were routinely "rubber stamped" are true, how did that become common practice? The county did not look into that either. "Why [would we]?" Hebert responded when asked why the county did not look into the cause of its past practices. The county worked out a solution with the state; "let's move forward," he said.
In past interviews, county administrator Duane Hebert said he did not know whether county approval of non-disabled ex-inmates for GRH funding was a system dating back years. Hebert said that former community services managers established the program and he did not know what "the philosophical direction from previous managers" was at the time. In emails with county commissioners obtained by the Winona Post, Hebert told the commissioners that "former management in Winona County Human Services did not provide proper oversight in the early period of Fresh Start startup." Fresh Start began before Hebert came to Winona County.
In an interview, former Winona County Community Services Director Craig Brooks, who retired a few years ago, said he had overseen the department when it approved GRH residents at Fresh Start. It has been years since his last day of work; however, he believed all of the GRH recipients had met the eligibility requirements of General Assistance, that is, they were disabled. He also noted that state rules regarding such programs are complex and change from year to year. If there was a mistake, it certainly was not made in secret, he added, pointing out that the County Board and other county committees were involved in the program.
"The county has so much red tape they can't figure out the program they're running," Warren Green commented.
To be fair, the red tape is the state's. County community services workers have the difficult job of trying to apply complex state programs to real life situations.
"We just want folks to get what they're eligible for," said Community Services Financial Supervisor Karen Moore, in a recent interview.
The big picture
"When I step back, I just wish there was a way to help those guys with their transition," Brooks said. Reflecting on the larger problem of recidivism, he commented, "I think it's a shame that the state or even the local government doesn't look at the cost benefit to pay for transitional housing rather than to pay for jail."
From the state to the local level, many leaders agree that everyone saves money if ex-offenders become taxpayers rather than returning to jails and courtrooms. There are local and state programs with those aims, but there is still a need for transitional housing.
Fresh Start and Second Chance are still up and running, though at a loss, according to their directors. Warren Green and Rothering still have several residents who receive GRH, but they are housing others at their own expense, they said.
The two halfway houses are housing roughly half as many people as they did before the funding cut. "There are a lot more people we could help," Warren Green said. Finances are tight, but, "it'll come back around," Green continued. "I depend on God for whatever I do. The county is about third on my list."
This is the first part of an occasional series. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this issue.