Safe Harbor?

The Salvation Army plans to house prison inmates in a work-release program at its Minneapolis shelter

At last count, on any given night in Minneapolis more than 500 people sleep outside. And while a few are on the streets by choice, most are out there because area shelters are desperately overcrowded. So when Patrick Wood, coordinator of the Metropolitan Homeless Project of People, Inc., heard that the Salvation Army would soon be housing state prison inmates in a work-release program at its Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis, he was more than troubled.

"We have more than enough homeless people to fill any space the Harbor Light can make available," he complains.

The details are still being ironed out, but according to documents obtained from the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DoC), the Harbor Light plans to start the work-release housing program with 3 inmates and work up to a maximum of 20 in the next year. As a consequence, Harbor Light will move beds for some 40 homeless women into a part of the facility currently reserved for people with mental illnesses and other problems.

Rearranging the furniture: Harbor Lights prepares to house inmates
Michael Dvorak
Rearranging the furniture: Harbor Lights prepares to house inmates

The work-release program, which allows some soon-to-be-freed inmates to work or participate in job-training programs in the community, was established in 1967. Until 1972, however, participating inmates were transferred to county jails. They would go off to work during the day and return to their cells in the evening. But as the work-release program grew larger, prisons started looking to community programs to house inmates.

Last month the DoC awarded work-release contracts to the Salvation Army and 16 other local agencies, including inmate halfway houses like Portland House and 180 Degrees in Minneapolis, according to DoC spokesperson Shari Burt. The Salvation Army will get $45 per day for each inmate, about half of what it costs to house someone in a state correctional facility. The state will pay $38, and each prisoner will come up with an additional $7. The cash will be a welcome shot in the arm to the Army, which is perennially short on funding. County officials say the Salvation Army has told them it has even figured out how to move enough beds around to accommodate the inmates without eliminating any services for the homeless.

But Wood and other critics worry that the facility, which has been plagued by security problems in recent years and is still struggling to come back from a management shakeup, is ill prepared for the task of caring for yet another challenging group of people. "As an advocate for the homeless, I would prefer to see them focus on their first mission of working with vulnerable adults on the street," says Wood. "These are two very challenging populations, and I'm skeptical that the two can be mixed in one facility. I know these inmates need housing, too, and I hate to say, 'Not in my back yard.' But it's more like, 'Not right on top of these vulnerable adults.'"

Assistant Hennepin County Administrator Dan Engstrom says the county also has concerns about the plan. "There are a lot of vulnerable people staying there every night," he explains. "So we have asked the Harbor Light to provide us with a security plan showing how they are going to manage these new people." If their plan doesn't pass muster, Engstrom says, the county may insist that the Harbor Light drop the plan to take in prisoners. "We're a major funder of their facility, so I don't think they're just going to go ahead with this if we're not in agreement."

When the Salvation Army opened the Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis 11 years ago, the five-story facility quickly became known as a haven for the sick, the addicted, and the mentally ill who had little hope of being cared for elsewhere. Today the Harbor Light remains open to those in need of food, counsel, and a place to sleep. But the center's reputation lost luster in the wake of a 1997 management turnover that placed the agency in the hands of inexperienced directors whom many say were unable to manage the facility's staff and the complex needs of the Harbor Light's inner-city clientele. (See "Dim Bulb," City Pages, June 21, 2000.)

During that time a homeless woman known in court documents as "Jane Doe" was raped in a room on the shelter's third floor, a secure unit reserved for those who are most vulnerable. The woman's rapist was convicted; a lawsuit she filed against the Salvation Army in Hennepin County District Court was scheduled to go to trial May 7.

In 1999 Hennepin County administrators told the Salvation Army that unless something was done immediately to ensure the safety of staff and the homeless, the county would cancel its $1.2 million annual contract with the agency. For more than two decades, the county has paid the Salvation Army to provide food, housing, and supervision to more than 300 homeless adults nightly. Then, as now, advocates for the homeless noted that Twin Cities shelters were perpetually full and the displaced would likely have nowhere else to go. But things were so bad at Harbor Light, many at the county said, that the homeless might be better off in the street.

The Salvation Army installed new managers at the shelter and today, by all accounts, things at the Harbor Light are vastly improved. "We've really worked hard to fix some of the problems we found here when we arrived," says Eydie Miller, who along with her husband Bill Miller, took over as Harbor Light co-director last June. "But Rome wasn't built in a day, and I know we still have a long way to go."

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