STAR in danger of fading away

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WALLA WALLA — To Chuck Hindman and Glenna Awbrey, the logic is irrefutable — spend some money now or much more later. And not all that far down the road.

Hindman is board president of Walla Walla’s STAR Project, and Awbrey is the director. The organization — Successful Transition and Reentry — was founded in 2005. The agency helps those just-released felons mandated by law to return to Walla Walla County find housing, jobs and social services.

Walla Walla and Thurston counties are alone in Washington state in dealing with the issue, Hindman said. “No other counties are doing anything like this. We’re a model program.”

So far STAR Project has served 91 clients this year and done so on the tightest of shoestrings, the pair said. Awbrey is the only paid staff, running classes, therapy sessions, mentoring, landlord intervention and case management. Housing assistance dollars, bookkeeping and client services, along with her annual salary of $35,000, equals a budget of less than $133,000.

For that, not only does Walla Walla County receive “significant” dollars in Washington state’s “rapid rehousing” funds — an incentive for getting ex-felons stabilized — but the community gets a measure of safety that money cannot buy, the pair said.

“We know there is a link between crime and homelessness. It’s impossible to work and go to school without knowing where you’re going to sleep at night,” Awbrey added.

At the end of November, however, she and her board got “disastrous” news. Recommendations from Walla Walla County’s Department of Human Services would cut local coordinated homeless housing funds and more from the 2013 budget.

The county currently kicks in a little more than $20,000 to STAR’s housing mission and $47,000 to operation and staff expenses. The DHS proposed cuts means a nearly $40,000 slash to STAR’s budget. “That’s 30 percent and we can’t survive that,” Hindman said.

As well, that funding is the only stable component on the agency’s books. The rest is made up by donations from individuals, churches and various charities. Without last year’s level of public funding, he said, “closing our doors seems inevitable within the next few months.”

The proposal is a bad move for the community’s wallet, he and Awbrey believe. Estimates say services provided by STAR means about half of those at risk to go back into the prison system won’t, saving about $45,000 per year per inmate.

If statistics hold, a $40,000 cut in housing funds will cost the public at least $200,000 to incarcerate such people again.

Many ex-convicts become chronically homeless upon release, Awbrey explained. “And they use about 50 percent of the community resources. And there is no one else doing this. This is not a client base that you can do one initial $300 rental help and be done.”

Proposals to partner with other area agencies to share the housing costs have been rebuffed.

It goes beyond the math, she added. “Our community is safer when someone has a home to go to at night.”

Last year, STAR Project had to turn away seven potential clients. “This year there were 24 we didn’t have resources for.”

Housing is the highest hurdle for most ex-convicts. While many in the community perceive the program serves single adults, the reality is 30 percent of the clients have children, and that number is growing, Hindman noted.

Because Walla Walla Housing Authority won’t accept renters with criminal backgrounds, “most cannot qualify for (subsidized housing).”

That means if their family is living in such housing on the prison release date, a couple must decide to live apart or sacrifice the stable place to live. “This isn’t just about people who really messed up, this is about their kids.”

Those families who can stay together tend to do better, Awbrey said, citing the agency’s nod of approval for its efforts from child welfare services.

Typically, private landlords and property management companies also shun ex-felons as tenants, even those with the means to pay rent, she said. “For those landlords, we have to be on the lease. If it goes south, we’ll go in and fix it, so they are not out a lot of money.”

The help distributed to those formerly locked up is not an entitlement, Hindman and Awbrey emphasized. The men and women enrolled in STAR must stick to the rules they’ve agreed to and work their programs to change the behavior that got them into trouble, Hindman said.

Most clients find work or get social services and can begin to pay their own rent within a few months, plus pay back STAR for its financial outlay, Awbrey explained. “As soon as they can.”

STAR board and staff are not blind to Walla Walla County’s financial plight, she said. “We know county commissioners have really difficult decisions to consider, but we do better when we work together.”

She and Hindman hope to get in front of the Board of Commissioners very soon to plead their cause, she said.

“We’re oriented to getting the bad guys and punishing them,” Hindman summarized. “But if we can redirect the bad guy, the crime doesn’t happen ... if STAR isn’t here, who do they go to?”

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