Winona County revokes halfway houses' funding; county gave state dollars to ineligible men
July 1 was not a good day for Pastor Warren Green. It was the deadline for nine guests to pack their bags and leave. Green operates Fresh Start, a halfway house or shelter of sorts in downtown Winona that offers housing to men, mostly men coming out of jail or prison. Al Rothering runs a similar operation in Minnesota City called Second Chance. On July 1, nearly all of the men from both places, 16 in total, were displaced. Seventeen men lost funding, but Green is still housing one temporarily.
The nine men who left Fresh Start are now sleeping outside or staying with friends in the Winona area, Green said. A parole officer for some of the men lamented the situation, according to the pastor. The officer now has to try to track down the homeless men. "The DOC [Minnesota Department of Corrections] loved us because we were a one-stop shop," Green said.
Reducing recidivism, the rate of ex-criminals reoffending, is the mission of Fresh Start. Stable housing is one of many important steps to preventing recidivism, Attorney Kalene Engel said. Engel is the Director of the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group that brings together law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and local officials. She stressed that stable housing alone does not reduce recidivism; education and employment are crucial, too. Still, housing for ex-offenders is "a huge problem in Winona," Engel said. Fresh Start and Second Chance were "filling a gap in the community," she said.
Green sees housing as central to keeping former inmates out of correction centers. "If you don't have an address, you're going back to jail," Green said. "Plain and simple. It's not, 'Oh we're going to trust you to find another place.' It's basically a sentence."
He continued, "What makes this so bad, is a lot of the people don't realize a lot of the people we have here are sex offenders, people out of prison. You can imagine what they did to go to prison. They didn't just get a parking ticket. They did something to go to prison and then just to say, put them out on the street." Green held up his hands, exasperated.
Some men should not have been funded
For three years, the men who stayed at Fresh Start and Second Chance received state funding for their housing through a program called Group Residential Housing (GRH). On July 1, Winona County revoked that funding. Rothering and Green suddenly found themselves without a revenue source to keep their doors open.
Administered by counties, GRH funds provide housing for people who are unemployable because of illness, injury, mental health, chemical dependency, old age, developmental disability, or some other reason. However, GRH recipients must be certified unemployable by a doctor or state vocational specialist or qualify for federal disability payments.
At least some of the 17 men whose funding was revoked, by law, should not have received GRH funding to begin with. According to the county, all of the men whose GRH funding was stopped did not qualify for it. Green said that some of the men were, in fact, lawfully qualified, but did not understand how to respond to the bureaucratic letters from the county. Other men struggled with many of the issues that would qualify them for GRH, but had not been certified by an expert, according to Green. Nearly all of them faced another challenge to gaining employment: the were ex-convicts.
Either Winona County or the State of Minnesota (depending on who is telling the story) began investigating such welfare programs for compliance. Once it was discovered that Rothering and Green's guests were receiving funding for which they did not qualify, it was quickly cut off. The alleged noncompliance was discovered in April. The 17 men whose funding was revoked were given a month and a half notice of the abrupt change to their lives. If the county's claims are correct, the total cost to the state from years of noncompliance is likely well into the six-digits.
A former Director of Winona County Human Services told Green about GRH funding, Green said. Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert acknowledged that the former department head may have been involved in the situation. "People being told they were eligible were not," he said.
Hebert declined requests from the Winona Post to directly interview Winona County Human Services administrators.
Who started it?
What set into motion the administrative act that displaced 16 men and corrected the improper use of state funds is unclear.
Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert said that the state initiated a conversation with the county aimed at insuring that the county complied with rules for human services programs. After months of talks, the state met with county officials about the GRH situation and "strongly encouraged" the county to review its GRH compliance, Hebert said. That encouragement led the county to revoke GRH funding for the 17 men, according to Hebert.
A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) said that the county approached the state with questions about its compliance. The county invited DHS staff to two meetings this spring to answer questions about GRH eligibility, she said.
The state has increased its scrutiny of such programs in recent years. A 2009 bill titled "State-County Results, Accountability, and Service Delivery Reform Act" included a number of measures to ensure welfare system compliance. In 2011, state committees began taking a closer look at the county's human services programs. A Winona Volunteer Services, a nonprofit that receives DHS funding, said it, too, is feeling "the crimp from the state."
The nearly $15,000 per month that will be saved by removing the 17 men from the GRH program will be returned to the state general fund, according to DHS staff. Over the past decade, spending for GRH has increased steadily from $83,500 ten years ago to $121,600 last year.
Green believes there are other motivations at work. "They are trying to close this house down," he said of Winona County. "This house represents everything Winona should not be." He explained that to some people "it's part of the beauty of Winona: we don't have homeless people."
Winona has homeless people, but no shelter
At least for the time being, homeless people without assistance have no housing options in Winona. With Second Chance and Fresh Start no longer accepting people who are not qualified for government assistance, and the Winona Catholic Worker men's house closed until later this month, there is virtually nowhere to go. "We'll pay for one night if it solves your problem," said Winona Volunteer Services Client Services Director Kay Peterson of her program's stance on providing housing. Too often, though, homelessness is a chronic problem, she said.
Finding housing for women and families is virtually impossible, Peterson said. The Women's Resource Center provides very short-term housing for women fleeing abuse. The only other option, the Winona Catholic Worker's women and families house, has been closed for lack of volunteers since January.
"I've had to tell people that there is no shelter in Winona right now," Peterson said.
"I am concerned with a place like Al Rothering's closing down because that was a great resource," she continued "Any cuts to Warren Green's would be unfortunate because he runs a tight ship and really helps his guys."
What's next for halfway houses
"I can't do this all out of my own pocket," explained Green, who said he put $90,000 of his own money into fixing up the downtown building that, in June, housed 14 men. Much of that money, he said, went toward meeting strict state standards for buildings that house people in the state funding program.
"We're going to try to have to do something else to stay afloat," Rothering said. Both men say they are operating at a loss at the moment due to lack of residents. Rothering has two people left; Green has five.
Green and Rothering said they hope to seek donations to support their operations.
"It's still needed," Green said. "I'm not giving up." He added, "We have to have this place up and running by winter because, you know, it gets cold."