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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Homelessness and the prison cycle (03/26/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. From left to right, Second Chance staff member Dan Whitedog, residents Lloyd Craig and Dan Fischer, and director Al Rothering gathered in the kitchen of the halfway house for coffee. "Without the grace of God and this place being here, I don't know what I would have done," Craig said.

Part two in a series

When Dan Fischer was released from prison, he could not find a place to go. He said corrections agents were going to release him onto the street, give him two weeks to find a place, and bring him back into custody if he could not. "What I am supposed to do?" he remembered thinking. "Just keep me here. Keep me in prison," Fischer told an agent, hopeless about finding a place.

Across southern Minnesota there is an unmet need for transitional housing for recently released inmates, according to state and local officials. In the Winona area there is a broader issue, too: a lack of emergency housing for anyone who is experiencing homelessness. State and local governments, community organizations, and volunteers are attempting to address the problem, but they are still falling short. A lack of resources, from funds to volunteers, often limits the help available for ex-offenders hoping to return to free society. Other times, advocates say, rules get in the way of possible solutions.

"The lack of housing is a huge issue," said Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) Supervisor for Intensive Supervised Release Pat Booker. The DOC has limited funding to house recently released offenders who would otherwise be homeless, but the fund is far smaller than the need, she explained. Statewide, "we never have enough funding for housing," she said. "Homelessness is one of the biggest risk factors out there, it truly is. If you don't have a place to live, you can't do anything else, you can't function," Booker added.

The Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) recognizes the problem, too. Without transitional housing and other resources, ex-inmates are likely to become repeat inmates, the group noted in a white paper on the issue released this winter. Homeless parolees are doomed to return to jail or prison, agreed several former halfway house residents in interviews.

For anyone who is experiencing homelessness in Winona, with a criminal record or not, the options are very limited. With a few case-by-case exceptions, Winona Volunteer Services Client Services Coordinator Kay Peterson said that she must refer people looking for emergency housing to shelters in larger cities.

SEMCAC, Winona Volunteer Services, and Catholic Charities have anti-homeless programs, mostly one-time funding to help someone avoid homelessness or to cover the upfront cost of getting an apartment. Public housing is available for non-felons, but many report months-long waiting lists. The Winona Catholic Worker has operated two houses that host homeless people, but due to a lack of volunteers, the organization has stopped taking overnight guests.

There are shelters in larger regional cities, but ex-offenders and others experiencing homelessness have a better chance of getting on their feet in their hometowns, where they have connections to help them, said Fresh Start halfway house director Warren Green in a previous interview. For Winonans to go to Minneapolis to find transitional housing, "when Winona is home, just doesn't make sense," said one former halfway house resident who now lives on his own and went back to school. "Basically what Winona has done is say, 'If you're homeless, don't come here,'" Green said.

Fischer was taken in by Second Chance in Minnesota City, one of two local halfway houses that still host a limited number of ex-inmates and others in need. However, the halfway houses are able to offer shelter to far fewer people since losing funding from a state-financed, county-run program called Group Residential Housing (GRH) last summer. The program is intended for disabled adults, but apparently, for years, the county had been approving non-disabled men to receive GRH funds and stay at the halfway houses. County officials discovered the problem in the winter of 2012 and cut funding for residents and the halfway houses last summer under pressure from the state, according to county officials.

"This is it. This is the only place we have to go," said one resident, at the time of the funding cut. Residents and directors of the halfway houses expressed frustration with the county for the sudden loss of funding that left some homeless. Even before the funding cut, Second Chance Director Al Rothering was exasperated by running up against rules in his attempts to help people. He had a system of setting aside part of his residents' monthly GRH payments, typically taken as rent, and saving it so that they could have a "nest egg" to make the security deposit on a new apartment when they left. That was not allowed by the state's rules for GRH, the county informed him.

More recently, however, the county, too, has pushed against state rules that, county officials argued, limit solutions. This winter the Winona County CJCC urged state rule changes that would allow the county to legally use GRH funds to house non-disabled ex-offenders, just as the county had apparently been doing, without legal authority, prior to last summer.

Speaking to a crowd and to local legislators at the CJCC and a League of Women Voters forum in January, County Attorney Karin Sonneman asked the state to ease rules for housing programs to allow for creative, local problem-solving. "There are so many barriers to housing, mental health, and chemical dependency services, and jobs, really, at a local level, because of the way the money is tied up at the state level," she said. "In Drug Court, for instance, we're having lots of success, but it's really hard to get them housing when they are coming out of treatment or jail…. We've got some great mental health services in Winona, but we don't have good housing for people," Sonneman continued.

County Administrator Duane Hebert has described anti-recidivism efforts as an investment. The argument is that programs that help keep ex-offenders out of trouble and help them become working, tax-paying members of society are cheaper for everyone than sending the same people back to jail over and over again. "It truly is an investment," said Booker. "It gets much more costly if we don't put this in place."

Booker gave kudos to Winona County for its "very progressive" anti-recidivism efforts. Grant funding for one of those efforts, an assistance referral and case management service for ex-offenders called the CARE program, is set to expire soon.

In 2011, when the CARE program was still partially relying on GRH-funded housing through Fresh Start and Second Chance, the program reported that its 46 enrollees had spent an average of 135 days in jail each, at an average cost of $139 per person per day. After participating in the program, only 14 of the enrollees served any further jail time and the average additional jail time served by enrollees dropped to only 23 days.

The CARE program sought to connect ex-offenders with a wide range of services from education to counseling. After all, housing is not the only struggle ex-offenders face.

The vast majority of county jail inmates have either a mental illness, chemical dependency, or both, Hebert stated at the League of Women Voters forum. He described those problems as "the underlying cause."

Falling back into drug abuse is major risk for ex-offenders, Booker stressed. She called the role of well-staffed halfway houses and shelters in maintaining safe, drug-free environments for ex-offenders "invaluable."

Sonneman noted the need for job opportunities for ex-offenders. That rang true for Fischer. After a lot of hunting, he finally landed a job on a nearby farm. He had worked a couple days when they asked him his crime. He told them the truth. They let him go.

When asked what it is like to get a job as an felon, Dave, a former Fresh Start resident who requested that his last name be withheld, waved his hand like he was throwing something in the trash. "It's hard." For any job, "you're the last one picked," he said.

Green, Rothering, and the CARE program also stress the value of mentoring ex-offenders, as well.

Housing is far from the only issue, but many who have been without it describe housing as a fundamental need. To have stable housing "is a peace of mind, a load off your shoulders, so you can take care of the business at hand," said Dave.

"That's what Winona needs, is a long-term homeless shelter," said another former Fresh Start resident. "You can't get off the street in 60 to 90 days if you're dealing with mental illness, addiction. You can't do it." He continued, saying that winding up back on the street "is still a big fear. To me, this is my last chance. If I end up on the street again, that's where I'm going to die. I truly believe that."

Fresh Start, Second Chance, the Winona Catholic Worker, SEMCAC, Winona Catholic Charities, and Winona Volunteer Services accept donations. More information, including volunteer opportunities, is available at freshstartofwinona.tripod.com, www.secondchanceranch.info, www.winonacatholicworker.org, www.ccwinona.org, and www.semcac.org, www.winonavs.org, respectively. 


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