Safe Harbor?

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

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.

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."

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."

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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