There’s nothing as frustrating, even maddening as a nice, new public building sitting empty (or half-empty), simply due to a lack of available funds to use it as intended. But Deschutes County officials are teaming up with a local homeless shelter to tackle one such problem, and help solve a couple of others in the process.
Last spring, the 90-bed Regional Work Center, located on the first floor of the Adult Community Justice Center was shut down, part of Sheriff Les Stiles’ effort to cover a $2.2 million shortfall. The state-funded facility opened in 1998 to meet the mandate of Senate Bill 1145, which required counties to start housing state prison inmates in the last year of their sentence.
The building is owned by the county, leased to the state and then sub-leased back to the county for 20 years, or until the debt service is paid, officials said. The county’s Adult Parole and Probation Department is located on the second floor.
If final details work out as planned, the facility will be the new home, for a year, perhaps longer, of the Bethlehem Inn, an operation begun in 1999. It has become a 20-week, wintertime shelter for as many as 60 homeless men, women and children, rotating each week among numerous participating churches, offering beds, meals and a warm place to spend the night.
Almost a third of the shelter’s participants are under county Parole and Probation supervision, or have been in the past, said Becky Jackson, director of the agency. After the Regional Work Center shut, she said, several members of her staff asked whether the facility could be used for transitional housing.
Sheriff Les Stiles said that couldn’t be done, without the state agreeing to it, so county Commissioner Dennis Luke – very familiar with the ways of Salem, from his days as a state lawmaker – approached Jackson in January about the idea, then went over to Salem and talked to his friends in high places.
“I asked if it would be possible to use it, on a temporary basis,” Luke said, and he won permission to do so from the governor’s office and the Department of Administrative Services.
The primary motivator was the need for transitional housing, which will use about 20 of the 90 beds, “because people are coming back (from state custody) and they’re being put up in hotels or at the Bethlehem Inn, and we’re not getting them the treatment they need,” Luke said.
Add the Bethlehem Inn shelter itself to the picture, and Luke said, “It’s turned into a win-win.”
The Bethlehem Inn will lease the space, with three dormitories, a classroom, office space, cafeteria and laundry room available for its use. The fourth dormitory will be used to provide transitional housing for adult male offenders required to return to the county after completing their time behind bars.
Staffing, rules, funding outlined
According to a recently completed business plan, inn volunteers will provide supervision as the facility operates from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., seven days a week. Guests will be photographed and provided with ID badges. They will arrive either with a voucher from St. Vincent de Paul, or can be approved at the door, with the program director’s permission.
Parole and Probation interns will provide supervision in the transitional housing dormitory at night and on weekends, while two department specialists will be housed there during the week. The offenders will be interviewed and screened for compliance, and can stay at the facility for 60 days, if they follow the rules, look for work and perform community service. Bedding, towels, toiletries and some meals will be provided by Bethlehem Inn.
“I’m very excited about it,” Jackson said Thursday, the day the state Department of Corrections provided formal approval of the setup. “We have a desperate need for transitional housing – a huge need.”
Jackson doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression: “It’s not `homey’ at all,” she said. “It has bunks that are bolted to the floor. Fortunately, the Bethlehem Inn has mattresses that fit on the bunks, and linens and towels.”
Bethlehem Inn board members are scheduled to tour the facility Monday evening, ahead of a vote that founder Milton Hunt has termed a “formality.” Jackson hopes to have the proposal before county commissioners on March 8, and to have the facility in use by early April.
Projected yearly revenues include about $10,000 the state Department of Corrections provides the county as a subsidy, to help offenders transition back into the community, and another $10,000 in state funding allocation, along with about $11,000 from the Bethlehem Inn and about $4,000 in rent (about $300 a month) paid by those transitional-housing offenders who need more than 60 days to find a place, Jackson said.
With total projected expenditures of just over $50,000 a year, the shortfall is expected to about $16,000 a year, and up to $27,000 the first year, due to start-up costs, although Luke said some furniture in storage should shave that amount.
Some neighbors have expressed concern about hearing the details and being able to provide input; Luke said a neighborhood meeting will be held to explain the planned use and its details before the facility opens, with notice sent to those living within about a quarter-mile.
“There’s no question in my mind, there’s going to be adequate supervision,” Luke said, noting that the facility, like the current, seasonal Bethlehem Inn, will be open during the nighttime hours only. “We’re going to move the day reporting center out there,” he said, but authorities still “like to have people going out” and working, looking for work or getting training.
“Bethlehem Inn still will be going through fund-raising and a search for a permanent facility,” Luke said. “This is an interim Band-Aid. They’ll be in there a year or more,” depending on a host of factors.
There’s also one caveat that all involved are aware of: When (no one is saying if) the sheriff has adequate funding once again to reopen the facility for its intended use as a minimum security work-release center, the shelter and its transitional housing adjunct will have 90 days to move out.
“Housing jail inmates who go out and work in the community – that’s what it should be” used for, Jackson said. But with those funds not in hand at present, she added, “It’s ridiculous to have it sitting there empty.”