Friday, January 12, 2007

Housing instead of Jail cells:

A pressing need for jail beds has convinced Sarasota County to subsidize "sober houses" for graduates of local substance abuse programs who have no place to live, and face the prospect of being incarcerated because they are homeless.

On Tuesday, the county commission allocated $320,000 to help finance rents, security deposits, utilities, furnishings and other start-up costs for non-profit groups that lease and supervise group homes for up to six unrelated tenants in recovery.

While the pilot project envisions only 50 beds in a handful of homes that would provide a safe environment for up to 24 months, Commissioner Paul Mercier suggested the community's need for such facilities is probably closer to 500 beds.

"This should include condominiums and apartments," he said. "Our staff recommendation is that First Step of Sarasota [a rehabilitation organization] administer the funds, but my recommendation would be the Salvation Army because it's where people look for help."

The county has philosophically grappled with how to address homeless people who have substance abuse issues, but are not lawbreakers. Many of them are booked into the county jail because there is no other place to provide them with safe shelter.

Ironically, the county is currently in a legal jam with the U.S. Justice Department because it tried to close five Warm Mineral Springs group homes for residents who are recovering from alcohol and mental health problems. It has been charged with Fair Housing Act violations.

While the county's actions in the Warm Mineral Springs case were in response to complaints from unhappy neighbors, its motivation to put recovering substance abuse residents somewhere other than jail is directly related to the absence of available cells.

The county jail in downtown Sarasota is filled to more than its capacity of 1,050 inmates, and extra beds have recently been placed in cells to accommodate the overload. A county consultant has been hired to study the situation and make recommendations.

Last year, Sheriff Bill Balkwill requested a new mid-county jail outside the city limits for between 200 to 300 sentenced prisoners to relieve the crowding situation. The problem is where to locate such a structure without angering neighbors.

In 1998, the county commission considered locations outside the city and listened to complaints from residents who felt threatened by a jail near their neighborhoods. It reluctantly agreed to construct a 329-bed addition to the downtown facility.

Now the expanded jail is overcrowded. Absent plans for providing additional cells, the county commission has asked for relief from a state "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of probation violators because there is no place to put them.

The $320,000 allocation by the county commission will help fund a program called the "Community Alternative Residential Treatment Initiative," which also includes detoxification and stabilization services and a 10-week substance abuse program.

It has been endorsed by two organizations that deal with law enforcement and substance abuse issues, the Criminal Justice Commission and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Stakeholders Consortium. Both groups support interim housing for program graduates.

The concept of "sober homes" scattered around a community is based on the Oxford House model, which was established in Silver Springs, Md., 32 years ago and has been widely copied. Variations on the model are operating in Charlotte and Manatee counties.

Residents of the all-male or all-female "sober homes" typically sign a lease agreement for a maximum stay of 24 months, although some are allowed to remain indefinitely. Rent is typically $175 a week, with vouchers available for those who are unemployed.

The program described to the county commission includes a $10,000 annual payment to the provider of each home, plus $2,000 per resident. It includes about $100,000 for vouchers, which would be available for unemployed program graduates.

by Jack Gurney from the Pelican Press

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