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Contra Costa homeless shelters unsure about effects of realignment

on October 3, 2011

As the state starts to release prisoners into the supervision of the counties, Contra Costa County’s homeless shelters – where former prisoners often end up because they don’t have family or their identity reestablished upon their release – aren’t sure what to expect.

Cynthia Belon, the Contra Costa Director of Behavioral Health Services, said it’s been difficult for her to determine whether the estimated $895,000 in state funding awarded to the county for health services will be enough to cover shelter beds, mental health care, and alcohol and drug treatment services.

“We’re really shooting in the dark right now,” she said. “It’s a good starting point. Let me say that.”

The Prison Realignment Act, sparked by overcrowding and poor health care conditions in state prisons, will shift responsibility for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders to county penal systems, while new “non-non-non” offenders will be sent to county jails or probation officers in lieu of state facilities.

“This isn’t anything new to us, because we calculated 15-20 percent of our (shelter) population are either on probation or parole right now,” said Arturo Castillo, the director of the Contra Costa Adult Continuum of Services.

Castillo manages the West County Interim Housing Program, a homeless shelter sandwiched between North Richmond and San Pablo. The shelter does not require guests to indicate whether they have a prison record, which, Castillo said, could mean the number of ex-offenders is much higher.

The shelter is at full capacity at 85 beds, and the county has been discussing adding more beds to accommodate those released due to the Prison Realignment Act, Castillo said.

“The thing is, with the shelters, as long as we have time in advance to know when their discharge dates are, we can accommodate them along with our current referrals,” he said.

Jeff Rutland, a volunteer with the Richmond Safe Return Project and former inmate, said he’s afraid the realignment will result in throwing more money at washed-up solutions to ex-offenders’ problems, such as penalizing mental health patients for missing an appointment with a specialist.

“You really can’t fix jobs…that’s the private sector,” he said. “But you really can do something with housing. You really can put services for drug and alcohol treatment – ones that are working, not the ones that are just set up.”

It took Rutland close to a year to settle back into society after he was let out of San Quentin in August 2010. He had been in and out of the state prison system for 26 years, and his most recent term had been a seven-year sentence for armed robbery without a firearm. When he came back to Richmond, he found himself homeless, jobless, and tangled in the throes of a down economy.

Like many ex-offenders making the transition from cellblocks to city blocks, the 48-year-old Richmond native faced his share of hardships – ones he hopes newly released ex-felons won’t have to experience when reentering society.

“For me, it was rough,” he said, recalling what it was like to be homeless and on parole.

Having nowhere to go, he carried himself to the Bay Area Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in the heart of Richmond’s gritty Iron Triangle neighborhood.

Sick of the homeless shelter’s rowdy atmosphere, he left after a week.

Trying to turn his life around, Rutland thought it would be wise to find a safer, more stable place to stay. He moved 13 miles south to the Volunteers of America facility in downtown Oakland, where he lived until he found a home in Richmond in May.

Now he has two jobs, one as project manager at Urban Tilth, a Contra Costa County-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture, the other as board director of Planting Justice, a nonprofit that helps put ex-felons back to work through urban farming.

Lavonna Martin, the Contra Costa Homeless Services Director, said establishing ex-offenders in stable housing is essential in curbing the recidivism rate and helping them piece together other parts of their lives, such as health issues and employment.

“I think anytime you can provide persons with real options and hope, that it curtails, perhaps the illegal activity or feeling a sense of having to re-offend to get their needs back,” she said.

But Martin said, although she doesn’t expect a bottleneck in demand, the county still needs millions more in funding to meet the basic needs of those returning from state prisons.

“We don’t have enough resources to sufficiently meet the needs,” she said. “I think that’s very clear across the board. Speaking specifically on homeless services: There isn’t enough housing – plain and simple.”

Some area nonprofits also worry about the program’s outlook.

Lynna Magnuson-Parrish, the Resource Center Program Manager for the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, said she anticipates a shortage in homeless shelter beds throughout the city and county.

“We have a good relationship (with other stakeholders), but even a good relationship doesn’t create beds,” she said. “I see that a shortage, even with good collaborative effort, is going to happen. That’s really where we’ll see people that probably will be on the streets as opposed to shelter beds.”

Belon said the county has reserved eight shelter beds per month combined at the Richmond and Concord shelters. About 70 of the more than 200 people reentering the county over the course of the next nine months will stay at a homeless shelter at some point, Belon said.

“When we say shelters, it’s really just not beds,” she said. “It’s really intensive case management services that help people gain access to all of the resources they need to end their homelessness while they’re in the shelter.”

Philip Kader, the Contra Costa chief probation officer, said the county plans on expanding health care services for ex-offenders rather than demand more from the existing system.

“They’re going to impact us – there’s no doubt about it,” he said at a community meeting Sept. 22 in Richmond. “It’s different because the state had money to fund some of that stuff. Now we have to fund it.”

Belon said she hopes the county will hold the state to its word that it will provide some additional funding for health services.

But for the meantime, she and her staff have focused on ways to add services for mental health and alcohol and drug treatment, an area with little capacity that’s expected to be in high demand.

For mental health, she said it’s a matter of adding more staff to cover ongoing, long-term treatment. And alcohol and drug treatment will require more money for contracting out local rehabilitation services.

Based on past data, an estimated 25 percent of the reentry population will need some sort of outpatient mental health service and medication management support, Belon said.

“We currently have no capacity in that (alcohol and drug treatment) system, as well as the mental health system,” Belon said. “So what this money does is allows us to build additional capacity so that people can gain immediate access to care.”

Castillo said there’s a need for more homeless health services, but that the number of ex-offenders reentering isn’t to blame. The healthcare providers on site at the shelter, which include a public health nurse, a mental health specialist, and a substance abuse specialist, are overwhelmed with a backlog of appointments.

“Obviously, there’s always a need for more, because the capacity that we’re trying to serve folks on is difficult,” he said.

The county’s biggest challenge, Rutland said, will be curbing the recidivism rate by ensuring ex-offenders are provided enough basic services.

“If really nothing changes, the (chief of police) is going to ask for a new county jail in two or three years.”

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