A neighborhood in Sunrise Heights, in the 32nd/Holden area (map), is nervously watching a newly rented house. It’s been rented by an agency called Sound Mental Health, to use as housing for some of its clients. And one of the programs from which those clients might come is the Re=entry Housing Pilot Project — a relatively new, state-funded program (described here) to help people make the transition from jail/prison to the rest of their life. Of course, once they’ve done their time, they have to go somewhere. But these neighbors are worried their street isn’t the right “somewhere” – partly because of schools and day-cares nearby, and 10 small children on the block. But they also wonder why they got no notice – till this happened, as explained by Bill:
A couple of my neighbors were in front of their house doing yard work when they noticed two young people walk up to the house that is right next door to them. They knew the house was recently for sale and/or for rent so the said “hello” thinking that these might be their new neighbors. What they quickly learned was that they were actually County employees doing a site inspection for the house because this home had been leased out to the County to house 5 convicted felons who will be released from prison. The County employees stated that these were not sex offenders but simply “convicts who committed violent crimes, domestic abuse, are recovering drug addicts or have mental health issues. Our neighbors quickly informed the rest of our block about this and we just had a neighborhood meeting (over the weekend) to discuss this. Nobody in our neighborhood was contacted by the County or anyone else for that matter to inform us that felons convicted of violent crimes would be moving in right next door to us.
We’ve learned a lot more since that first note came in — including the fact those weren’t county employees — an explanation of why neighbors didn’t get notice – and whether felons really might be moving in, ahead:
The “county employees” were actually not from the county, but instead, were from Sound Mental Health, whose director of integrated services, Declan Wynne, spoke with WSB at length this afternoon, after we contacted the agency with a stack of questions about this situation and the program in general. He also wanted to note the employees are new and therefore couldn’t answer all the neighbors’ questions on the spot.
SMH says it will have a representative at the Thursday meeting, and neighbors are working to get other key participants, such as a police representative and possibly someone from city government. Wynne says SMH will wait until after that meeting to decide which of its programs would be best suited for placing residents in that house. But it still could be the Reentry Housing Pilot Project, created last year; according to this state webpage, Sound Mental Health got more than $871,000 to help up to 75 “high-risk, high-need male and female offenders”; the page goes on to say, With cross-system collaboration with DOC, housing management and the police, Sound Mental Health will develop an individualized multi-system care plan to address housing, employment, education, funding, basic living skills, self-sufficiency, and treatment services and supervision requirements..”
That is echoed by Wynne, who says this isn’t just a matter of opening a house to ex-inmates and cutting them loose. But he also confirms that there is not necessarily fulltime on-site supervision; the residents report to their Department of Corrections supervisors (once known as parole officers), and they have SMH case managers at the same location as those DOC workers. SMH personnel also visit the homes anywhere from twice weekly to daily. But there’s also one kind of resident supervision option, he says: “At some of our houses we have put in other successful clients [previous program participants] who become the house monitor, a mentor of sorts.”
Why West Seattle, we asked? It seems they try to offer the ex-inmates a place to live in the community they came from – which may be a community where they have some ties and some support. WS also is convenient to SMH’s 4th Avenue South location. And he says it’s also a matter of safety – for the residents, and those who live in the neighborhood.
That’s exactly what worries the neighbors; another nearby resident told WSB, “The case manager assured me that they will be expected to go to their jobs during the day and will have a curfew at night. What happens on the weekends and at night? They also told us that if there are any problems, we are to call them right away. Do I wait until they harm or kill one of my children or my neighbor’s children? Does this mean we as neighbors are expected to be the prison guards so that these men can comfortably get reintroduced into society?” She adds, “I understand that these people need to get their feet on the ground, but there HAS to be a better place for this kind of situation. NO GOOD can come from 5 ex cons living under one roof. I refuse to be a guinea pig for this crazy experiment.”
We asked Sound Mental Health’s Wynne why no formal notice to neighbors that this might happen. He said the agency would prefer to notify neighbors as a courtesy — though the law does not require it; once you’ve done your time, unless you are a sex offender, there’s no community-notification requirement — but said that they have to walk a line with federal privacy laws, particularly HIPAA: “If we notify them that this will be a house for (an SMH program), then we are identifying all its residents as participants, which would be a violation of HIPAA,” Wynne explained, adding that these are ultimately “private dwellings” and some degree of privacy goes with that, as it would for anyone.
Meantime, even if the house near 32nd/Holden is ultimately targeted for the RHPP, after the meeting with neighbors on Thursday, Wynne says “there’s nobody identified for going into it” right now. He says SMH has the program in homes “in normal neighborhoods” all over the county, and he says the residents of those homes have been “respectful,” no trouble so far. Participants are expected to stay in the program no longer than a year; according to Wynne, they are usually placed in new jobs within a month of their release (SMH has contracts with some employers). And he stresses again that they would be reporting to case managers who have “a very low caseload in comparison to other programs … (so) a lot more attention can be given to these participants.” He says that “low” caseload means 35 maximum per SMH employee; the ones who work as “clinicians” in this program, he says, are also trained in mental-health and chemical-dependency work so they can deal with their clients on those issues as well as others.
There’s no question, Wynne says, that Sound Mental Health will use the house for one of its programs; the question now is, will the agency go forward with the idea of using it for the Re-entry Housing Pilot Project, or will it be used for something else? The decision is due after the Thursday meeting with neighbors; meantime, those neighbors are continuing to do vigorous research as well as outreach to get the word out – just as we were finishing writing this story, we received a note from yet another area resident, who enclosed the notice about the Thursday meeting, which they found out about upon their return from a trip, and added, “As you can imagine we were horrified at the possibility of recently released inmates moving into a family oriented neighborhood that has a daycare one block away from the proposed site and a school (Our Lady of Guadalupe) 3 blocks away. Everyone in West Seattle should be concerned about this because of the ‘pilot project’ factor.”
We’ll keep close watch on this and let you know what happens.