Safe Harbor?

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

Miller is confident that the center can handle the changes that will come with boarding work-release inmates and denies that the deal was made simply to bring in more money. "The Salvation Army is really about helping people who have nowhere else to go," she says. "Of course we need to have enough money to keep our doors open, but we're not doing this for money. It's our mission to help people see that they can make a better life for themselves."

The inmates chosen for the program are carefully screened and do not have a history of violence, the DoC's Burt is quick to add. They are expected to find work soon after being placed at the Harbor Light and will have to report back to the facility at a set time each evening.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein has attended recent meetings about the plan. The Millers' motives may be honorable and the inmates deserving, he says, but overall the contract still seems to him a bad idea. "I don't think it's a good mix," he says. "The county would like to see the women moved out of there if these inmates are going to move in."

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

Engstrom agrees. Ideally, he says, all the women now being housed at Harbor Light would be moved elsewhere. But finding them a new home will be no easy task, he's quick to add. Last summer, amid fears for the women's safety because of the last round of security issues at the shelter, the county tried to find an alternative. But every shelter in the area was full, so the women had to stay where they were. Realistically, Engstrom says, moving them out is a long-term goal.

According to Mary Erpelding of the county's Access Unit, which provides outreach to the homeless, Harbor Light plans to move the 40 women who bed down each night in a large dormitory-style room on the center's first floor known as Sally's Place. The inmates would take those bunks and the women would move upstairs to the third floor "special needs unit," which is reserved for men and women who need intensive supervision. The third-floor area will remain divided, with special-needs women on one end and the women displaced from the first floor on the other. Vulnerable men will be moved to the second floor, where they will share space with men who don't need as much supervision.

In interviews for this story, neither county nor Salvation Army officials could say for sure what would constitute adequate security. In the past, according to county records, doors to secure floors have been left unlocked and security guards sat idly by as people walked through a metal detector at the agency's front door uninvited.

The security concerns aren't all internal, either. County Commissioner Stenglein questions the logic of housing inmates on Currie Avenue, a block-long stretch of pavement tucked behind a parking ramp near the Greyhound bus station in downtown Minneapolis. The one-way street, often referred to as "Little Calcutta," is home to hundreds of homeless people each night who sleep in and around the various shelters crammed on the block. The stretch is notorious for its high level of crime, drugs, and prostitution.

"It's like putting an alcoholic in a bar to house [inmates] here," says Stenglein. "But guess what: Edina's not going to take them. So I suppose having them all in one place means we can at least manage them. Parole officers will just have one stop to make to visit them all."

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