A fix for ex-offender housing difficulties faces uncertainty

     Zach Hassinger in his apartment in downtown Lewisburg, which he got through the Union County Justice Bridge Housing Program aimed at preventing people on probation or parole from re-offending. Hassinger, 23, has been sober since being charged two years ago with felony drug-dealing and other offenses. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Zach Hassinger in his apartment in downtown Lewisburg, which he got through the Union County Justice Bridge Housing Program aimed at preventing people on probation or parole from re-offending. Hassinger, 23, has been sober since being charged two years ago with felony drug-dealing and other offenses. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Union County’s controversial Justice Bridge Housing Program got some good results, but funding fell off and its future is uncertain.

    Laundry in the bathroom corner, baseball cap collection in the living room and a poster of a young woman wearing close to nothing.

    Zach Hassinger’s apartment is pretty standard for a 23-year-old guy.

    But he’s here for reasons that are uncommon to most people, if not necessarily to him.

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    “I remember vividly, as a child, going to pick up massive amounts of marijuana with my father,” he says. “When you’re in that environment, and you’re around drugs and both your parents seem to be functioning fine, one can only assume that you’re never going to mess around with it, or eventually, you will. I mean, doesn’t everybody aspire to be like their parents?”

    Eventually, Hassinger did follow in his parents’ footsteps, dealing drugs and using a lot of cocaine, in particular.

    “I would be up for three days at a time. Totally out of control.”

    Eventually, Hassinger was arrested on felony drug charges.

    He avoided doing serious time by getting into Union County’s drug treatment court. Part of the deal with drug court is that people have to agree to probation meetings, community service, group therapy, individual counseling, and work and housing plans approved by a probation officer.

    Steve Diehl is Hassinger’s probation officer.

    “He lived with…family members who weren’t in the best situation.  And it was in the middle of nowhere and they weren’t interested in getting him to meetings, and to counseling, or to a job, or things like that,” Diehl says.

    So, Hassinger had a housing problem, as many former inmates do.

    But since 2012, there’s been a solution for him and 30 other Union County residents convicted of nonviolent offenses. The Justice Bridge Housing Program helps with rent, covering the difference between full rent and 30 percent of their income.

    Supporters say it’s working, but not everyone’s on board.

    By the numbers

    Participants have a 37 percent recidivism rate, compared to the 60 percent statewide number (county stats aren’t available), according to a consultant’s evaluation of the program.

    “To be able to show the numbers that we’re showing is a clear indicator that this is a great program that we should continue to operate,” said Union County Chief Probation Officer Scott Lizardi.

    The program could save money, too. Help with rent is based on income, and the program averages $19 per person per day. It’s as much as $72 daily to support someone in jail (Union sends all female and up to half of male inmates to other county jails because it doesn’t have facilities for women and its male quarters accommodate just 35; $72 is the upper range of the daily rate charged by adjacent county prisons).

    “If you take some of the money you’re budgeting for out-of-county housing for inmates and put it into Bridge Housing and you reduce your jail population even by two or three people per year, you’ve paid for what you’ve contributed to the Bridge Housing Program, and you’ve probably saved some,” Lizardi says.

    That monetary transfer isn’t happening, though. County commissioners aren’t supporting the program, complaining that the program isn’t run properly.

    Commissioner Preston Boop cites examples of people who’ve reoffended — one person did so twice — while in program-supported apartments. Boop also says the program’s helping people who don’t really need it. Rather than trying to live with friends or relatives, people are automatically seeking the bridge housing program.

    And he says the county’s day-reporting program could help people find a job and save money before they’re even eligible for release.

    Making rent

    But what if, once out, someone’s income is not enough to cover rent, let alone lingering fines and legal bills?

    Many ex-offenders aren’t eligible for public housing assistance. It’s closed by federal law to anyone who’s committed arson or a drug offense at a public housing property, or required to register for life as a sex offender.

    The federal Department of Housing and Urban development urges individual housing authorities to avoid additional carte blanche prohibitions. But most local authorities are stricter than HUD about criminal records. And even those that are more liberal have waiting lists, usually. In Union County, it’s six months.

    Union County doesn’t have any emergency shelters (which sometimes have their own rules about ex-offenders) one might use in the meantime.

    To help deal with these sorts of gaps, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency funds post-release housing initiatives all over the state: Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Greene, Allegheny and other counties, including Union.

    PCCD rejected Union’s request for more money, though. The program’s working fine, but PCCD gave priority to new projects, according to Executive Director Linda Rosenberg.

    Greene County managed to get a second round, though: $200,000 (versus Union’s $72,000 request) to expand its program. Half of the 13 round-one participants in Greene County have re-offended (versus 37 percent of 31 in Union).

    Green County’s government hadn’t passed its 2016 budget when I reached Commissioner Archie Trader. But Trader says that’s because the state budget is late and new commissioners haven’t started their terms. Eventually, Trader says, the intent is to contribute some county tax dollars.

    This signals the program’s potential sustainability, which is a factor PCCD considers. Rosenberg says that didn’t affect the decision about Union County.

    But it remains a problem for them, nonetheless, with Boop pulling his support.

    Boop also says he’s wary about giving spending discretion to “new” guy Bruce Quigley, who’s headed the county Housing Authority for the past four years. The Housing Authority is the lead agency administering the program.

    “Do you know how government works? You give people money, they spend it and then come back and ask for more,” Boop says. “We’re trying to be responsible.”

    What’s next

    Other transitional housing models for ex-offenders exist, but few are administered by housing agencies like in Union County. Throughout Pennsylvania and the rest of the country, most are run by private companies (typically government contractors).

    In this case, existing relationships with landlords are an advantage, Quigley says.

    Also, people don’t have to move again once they can pay on their own or come up on the Section 8 waiting list. The stability factor’s particularly key for people in managing addition, mental health issues or both.

    Hassinger says he couldn’t have adhered to terms of his probation without the program. A violation would have meant re-sentencing, potentially, for all of his original charges (20-something, 12 of which were felonies) to a state prison term.

    “That program saved my life, really. Wholeheartedly, genuinely believe that,” he says.

    That’s powerful. But a consultant’s report cautions replicating this project could be tough in places without close-knit relationships partly credited for the program’s success.

    It also seems like the program’s already at risk for failing there, in part due to this dependence on collaboration, made susceptible by the mercurial nature of very relationships on which it depends, particularly when they include politicians in charge of purse strings.

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