Sentenced to the Street

A new effort seeks to stop Washington’s prison system from releasing inmates into homelessness.

In the early morning of January 14, 911 operators answered a series of calls from an Aurora Avenue motel called Seal's. A man named Joseph Hradec said he was suffering from an anxiety attack. In the background, a woman's voice could be heard yelling: "Let me go" and "He has a knife." When police arrived at the scene, they say, Hradec wouldn't let them in. They forced down the door, saw he had a knife, and shot him with a Taser dart gun. When Hradec still moved toward the officers, they shot him dead.Hradec was no stranger to police. He had a long history of criminal charges, including robbery and drug violations, and had been in and out of jail for most of the decade. He was 37 years old, sported a blonde ponytail and flannel shirts, and was "really cordial"—except when he wasn't, according to his Community Corrections Officer (the DOC official charged with monitoring offenders after their release from prison), Karl Wickizer. Complaining of mental health problems, habitually using drugs and alcohol, Hradec was prone to ugly outbursts.He was also homeless, last telling Wickizer he was camping out in the woods around Monroe and Gold Bar. Would his ability to cope have improved if he'd had a regular place to stay? It's a question that lies at the heart of several bills now before the legislature that attempt to keep former prisoners from living on the streets.Wickizer, who is based in Monroe, says he has been shocked by the living conditions of people on his caseload, whether they're couch surfing, living in empty garages, or camping out under bridges. Having spent 23 years inside prisons as a corrections officer and counselor before this job, he says: "Now I know why people panicked when they were getting close to their release date."As of last July, nearly 13 percent of ex-cons under community supervision—or 3,900 people—were homeless, according to Department of Corrections figures. In Seattle, the proportion's even higher: close to 30 percent, according to DOC field administrator Bonnie Muccilli.Jake Ward, a Seattle Community Corrections Officer, says that in his caseload of several dozen, "I can probably count on one hand the people who do have addresses." Walking around Pioneer Square one recent rainy night, looking in vain for some of these parolees, he says he wishes it weren't so. "These guys are 10 times more stable when they have a place to rest their head."Bill Block, executive director of King County's Committee to End Homelessness, points to a study that tracked 4,700 mentally ill, formerly homeless people in New York state who were placed into housing between 1989 and 1997. According to the study, by University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane, the people housed collectively spent 74 percent fewer days in prison in the two-year period after being housed than they had in the two-year period before.Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) says it is seeing similar results in its once-controversial 1811 Eastlake project, a 75-bed "wet house" that offers housing, optional substance-abuse treatment, and other social services to chronic street drunks. Many of the residents have spent time in jail for alcohol-related offenses like public urination and assaults, according to DESC spokesperson Nicole Macri. But after moving in, residents spent 42 percent fewer days in jail during a one-year period, according to the preliminary findings of a joint study by DESC and the University of Washington's Addictive Behaviors Research Center.Armed with such research, housing advocates are lobbying for a bill by Rep. Mark Miloscia (D-Federal Way) that would require the DOC to come up with a plan to eliminate homelessness among former prisoners by the year 2015. The bill puts the same onus on the state Department of Social and Health Services in connection with the people it releases from foster care and state institutions like Western State Hospital. Mia Navarro Wells, executive director of the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless, says the plan could combine state- supported group living, like halfway houses, with subsidies for private apartments.That's bound to cost many millions of dollars. The state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development currently runs a pilot housing program, with 160 beds, for high-risk former offenders—a fraction of what would be needed to house the thousands who are released from prison into homelessness. That program costs $3.3 million every two years, and faces elimination under Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget, which calls for huge cuts in many social programs.Yet Miloscia's bill passed out of the Local Government and Housing Committee with unanimous and bipartisan support. That may be in part because the bill only mandates the creation of a plan, not its implementation, and therefore would cost very little—about $250,000, according to DOC projections. Still, at a time when the DOC is forbidding prisoners from wearing anything but uniforms in order to scrimp on laundry costs, the department says it cannot afford the study, according to a legislative report on the bill, which does not provide DOC with any additional funding.Ann Fiala, a DOC regional administrator, adds that any future prohibition on releasing offenders into homelessness would likely have an unintended consequence: The inmates simply wouldn't be released—at least not until their "maximum" sentence had been served. Under current regulations, prisoners with good behavior can get their sentences reduced by as much as a third. Inmates convicted of serious crimes are already required to show they have someplace to live in order to get out early. During the 2008 fiscal year, the DOC held 1,300 people longer than their early release date because they didn't have such an address. However, Fiala says, nonviolent and drug offenders don't need to submit an approved address in order to get early release, and those are the people who might be held longer.If the DOC could secure housing for inmates, it could release many others much earlier. Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood) has submitted a bill that would require the DOC to provide rental vouchers for up to three months for inmates being held longer than their early release date. Despite the expense of these vouchers, the bill is expected to save the DOC $1.5 million a year, according to the fiscal report prepared by legislative staff. It's far more expensive to keep people in prison than in cheap motels or rental housing.Advocates for the homeless argue that housing ex-cons saves even more taxpayer money, because of reduced use of publicly funded services at hospitals, psychiatric centers, and the like, not to mention the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating them again should they re-offend. The preliminary findings on 1811 Eastlake, for instance, estimate that $2.5 million in public money was saved in a year. But that facility provides permanent housing. Whether temporary vouchers can do the same trick is unknown.They didn't do much for Joseph Hradec. In a DOC trailer that sits on the grounds of the Monroe state prison, Wickizer, the Community Corrections Officer, opens the thick file of his former charge, stuffed with reports of repeated arrests, drinking, and volatile behavior, including a shouting episode at an Everett emergency room that brought the police. Several times, Wickizer says, the DOC paid for Hradec to stay at a motel for a week or two, under a program similar to the one Carrell is proposing. (That program ended last year when DOC was told by the state Attorney General's office that it did not have the budgetary authority to pay for housing, an authority that Carrell's bill would provide.)On one of those occasions, Wickizer drove Hradec to Monroe's Fairground Inn and checked him in for a week. When that was over, Wickizer says, Hradec called him and demanded more time, telling the officer to "reach into that big belly of corruption" for the money. Wickizer got him another week. When near the end of that week Hradec didn't report to Wickizer as instructed, the officer drove back down to the motel. Hradec wasn't there, but the manager let Wickizer into his room. "It was trashed," Wickizer says. "He had vomited all over the place. There were no sheets on the bed. There were beer cans all over."When Wickizer finally reached Hradec by phone, he told the officer he was "self-medicating."That was the last time the DOC put up Hradec. He drifted around Snohomish and King County after that. The last time Wickizer saw him was on January 8. Hradec had been released that day from the King County Jail, where he had been held for failing to report to Wickizer and leaving Snohomish County without permission. "He indicated he was going to be homeless again," Wickizer says. The officer gave Hradec some bus passes and told him to report back in a week. Hradec never made it in.nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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