March 20, 2012

Out from under the bridge

3-20-2012 Montana:

Advocates working to curb sex offender homelessness

Cars drive several feet above the registered addresses of sex offenders in Missoula every day.

Of Missoula County’s 649 registered sexual and violent offenders, four are registered under bridges — two under Orange Street and two under Reserve Street.

Another two live at the Super Wal-Mart. Two more live on the Kim Williams Trail. An additional 10 are registered as “transient” and don’t have addresses.

“That’s not really what the people intended when they said they wanted to have a sex registry,” said state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, who’s working on legislation to provide housing for sex offenders. “It’s the right thing to do to ensure that a sex offender on probation succeeds, not just for the safety of the community, but for the safety of themselves.”

When offenders get discharged from prison, they often struggle to find housing, said Hill. Without adequate support, they can once again fall through the cracks, putting them at a higher risk of reoffending and costing the community thousands of dollars.

Hill isn’t alone in her mission to get sex offenders off the streets. Others in Missoula also see problems with the current situation.

Sue Wilkins, executive director of Missoula Correctional Services, said money can be a major obstacle in securing housing.

“A large percentage of (sex offenders) are single and need to find an apartment like anyone else,” she said. “A lot of them have low-income jobs, so money is a big piece of trying to find a place.”

Missoula Correctional Services addresses housing affordability for offenders by teaching inmates budgeting skills that emphasize saving, Wilkins said. The nonprofit also works with offenders to prepare them for job interviews and requires those in its pre-release program to secure jobs before they can be discharged.

But for many offenders, money’s only half the challenge. Some landlords refuse to rent to people with a criminal background, said Eran Fowler Pehan, executive director of the Poverello Center.

“Missoula’s rental vacancy is so low, and the market is so competitive,” she said. “Landlords don’t have to rent to people with criminal backgrounds. They can choose other tenants, and they often do.”

Beki Hartmann, director of the Associated Students of the University of Montana’s Off-Campus Renter Center, has had several students who are also sex offenders walk into her office for advice.

“I think that when they come here and talk to me, they’ve been looking for quite a while and keep getting rejected,” she said. “The only resource I can give them is to tell them that about half the properties in Missoula are managed by private landlords, and many private landlords do not do background checks or credit checks.”

Sex offenders who struggle to find housing can stay at the Poverello Center if they are Level 1 and 2 offenders — those with a low to moderate chance of reoffending. Pehan said Level 3 offenders — those the state deems at a high risk of reoffending — struggle the most. They cannot access many support services in Missoula, including those the Poverello Center offers such as advocacy and help with housing applications.

“What will work for Missoula will really depend on what our community wants,” Pehan said.

Community members have a variety of ideas. Hill proposed a bill in the Montana House last year that encouraged the Department of Corrections and local entities to develop housing options for sex offenders. The bill passed the House but failed in its final reading in the Senate.

Hill is running for re-election and plans to reintroduce the legislation. She expects it to pass both chambers.

She added that she sees permanent supportive housing as a viable solution. This could consist of a facility resembling Missoula’s Valor House, which has 17 units available for veterans who were previously homeless, she said.

But others aren’t sure a housing complex is the best option.

“Do you congregate all these people in one location?” asked Wilkins. “I don’t know that that’s so healthy. I also don’t know that there would be any neighborhood that would feel that was a good idea.”

Wilkins said she doesn’t know the best solution. But she’d like to see the community explore a plan that would temporarily fund the housing of someone who would otherwise be homeless. Once the recipient can afford rent, the subsidy would help another person. That way, offenders could stay living in the same location and not have to give up their home to the next participant in the program.

One funding option lies in the state’s general budget, said Andrea Davis, executive director of Homeword, a Missoula nonprofit that promotes affordable housing. There’s a line item in the budget for a housing trust fund, but it’s currently unfunded.

If the state decided to make housing for sex offenders a priority, legislators could allocate money to the trust fund to support something like permanent supportive housing, Davis said.

“We could do that, which is the beauty of having our own money without having to use federal money,” she said.

The federal government offers several programs that subsidize housing for low-income individuals. But Davis said these are competitive, and applicants with criminal records are often at a disadvantage.

Others in Missoula are working on a long-term plan to find a lasting answer. Councilman Jason Wiener and about 10 other community members have spent the past year talking to Missoulians and others across the state and country to develop a strategy to combat homelessness. He said the group will present a draft of Missoula’s 10-year plan in the middle of the year.

One idea is to collect a pool of money that landowners can draw from to supplement part of the initial payments required when a person rents a house. That would reduce the burden many homeless people face when they have to put down first and last months’ rent in addition to a security deposit, he said. Landowners would have to voluntarily contribute to the pool to use it.

Wiener added that this plan would work if landowners were willing to accept people such as sex offenders without preconditions. But he knows that idea might not receive much support.

“It’s pretty hard to make the case that you’re going to house everybody without the government being the housing partner of last resort,” he said. ..Source.. by

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