We all depend on the four walls and a roof that we call home. Safe housing—like food, water, and clothing—is one of the simple needs all people have in common. But when it comes to ex-prisoners’ need for housing, finding solutions is anything but simple.
Few people understand the challenges of ex-prisoner housing better than Ron Chase, the long-time CEO of Sponsors, Inc., a transitional housing provider in Eugene, Oregon, that has offered a safe haven and wraparound reentry services to hundreds of former prisoners since 1973. During a recent presentation to members of Oregon’s reentry community, Ron raised a series of vital questions for anyone thinking about setting up transitional housing.
Location, Location, Location
When deciding where to locate your transitional living facility, take care not to leap at the first potential setting. Housing ex-prisoners requires that you take several special requirements into consideration.
- Stay close to public transportation. At first blush, a rural environment sounds peaceful and therapeutic, but it has significant drawbacks. Many ex-prisoners have lost their driving privileges, and since your residents will require access to a variety of services and job opportunities, they need a way to get there easily and affordably.
- Check on local zoning requirements. Try to find a site already zoned for multi-family or high-density occupancy, often found on the fringes of residential areas. Many residential neighborhood areas limit the number of unrelated adults who can live under the same roof. To get around such zoning laws, you would need to seek a conditional use permit with a local zoning board—a lengthy, difficult process.
- Learn the laws regarding housing sex offenders. Up to one third of Sponsors’ clients are sex offenders, so Sponsors locates its facilities a safe distance from schools, daycare centers, parks, and other places where minors congregate. If you plan to serve sex offenders, you should do the same, and familiarize yourself with any other residency restrictions that may apply under state and local law.
- Choosing a functional, practical layout. Most clients would rather have private bathrooms than private kitchens. Suite layouts with private bathrooms and shared kitchens are most economical, whereas motel-type layouts take more time, money, and effort to manage.
Meet the Neighbors
If you have successfully secured a site, take time to notify the neighborhood residents before construction or move-in. While residents might object to the presence of the reentry program in their backyard, secrecy does not help build trust. Ron goes door to door, providing the new program’s neighbors with contact information of the program’s director. He also explains that the program has no control over who the government releases or where they are released. But he stresses that the community can help influence the conditions under which prisoners are released: to the street, or to a structured program that demands accountability. If you can, also identify local political, neighborhood, and religious leaders, and try to obtain their support.
To be effective, your transitional living facility must have steady access to a flow of resources —both financial and human.
- Funding. “I never opened up a new building unless I knew I had the staff and resources to open it. It wasn’t on a wing and a prayer,” says Ron. Likewise, the directors of new transitional living facilities should ask themselves where the money will come from before they ever open the doors. Possible funding sources include: private grants and donations, county service contracts, utility grants, stimulus funding, low-income housing affordable tax credits, client fees for food and rent, and grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (for housing released veterans). To open up funding channels, it helps to establish your facility legally as a nonprofit entity and seek a diverse set of board members from the community.
- Staffing. To maintain proper accountability, support, and public peace of mind, transitional living facilities require a 24-hour staff presence. That kind of commitment quickly burns through volunteers. Sponsors, Inc., keeps a sizable staff that includes employment counselors, former parole officers, and ex-prisoners who have graduated from the program and maintained their sobriety. “A well-rounded staff with diverse personal and ethnic/racial backgrounds is best,” says Ron.
- Good governance. Your transitional facility should be run like a business, with funding commensurate to your costs. So though your motivation may come from compassion, you must also take into account practical considerations—like payroll, employee law, and accounting—early in the development of your organization.
Creating a Safe, Supportive Environment for Clients
Housing is about more than shelter. It’s about providing a launch pad to other benchmarks of success. Ron recommends the following values and guidelines for successful transitional living facilities.
- Sobriety. All residents need to refrain from using alcohol or other controlled substances during their stay at the facility. Only a drug- and alcohol-free environment will keep all residents safe and on track. All failed urinalysis tests will be reported immediately and fully to the office of probation and parole, a policy carefully explained to residents when they move in.
- Employment. All residents should work, and those who haven’t yet found a job need to meet with a staff member to create plans for finding one.
- Self–sufficiency. The program should require residents to save a portion of their earnings so that they can afford to eventually transition to independent housing.
- Integrity. As the director of a transitional living facility, you will deal with a variety of public and private entities, very few of them favorably disposed to your clients or to your presence in the community. To win them over, it is essential that you operate your facility with integrity and consistency.
Consider What Drives You
“A lot of people go into this without a clear idea of what they’re doing,” says Ron. “It’s a difficult population, and there’s daily drama and personal issues. It’s a burnout job. For people who do it out of the goodness of the heart and religious conviction, there’s a steep learning curve on how to provide for people with a criminal history.”
Setting up a transitional housing facility is no mission for the faint of heart. But, if you have determined that you have the passion, plans, and resources you need to get started, the rewards can be great—both for ex-prisoners and those who open the door to successful reentry.