BURLINGTON -- A proposal to create transitional housing for nonviolent women offenders who are returning to Chittenden County has sparked a new flurry of criticism. This time, it's coming from local housing and homelessness advocates, who say the project would divert already scarce resources from a far more urgent need: emergency and transitional housing for homeless families and those at risk of homelessness.
The "Northern Lights House," which would be located at 76-78 Cherry Street, would accommodate as many as 10 newly released female offenders from the state's correctional system. The project is being spearheaded by a coalition of eight Chittenden County nonprofit groups that would provide the women with a web of support services to help them return to society, including drug and alcohol treatment, mental-health counseling and employment training. The project already faces opposition from members of the Burlington Business Association, who question whether it's appropriate to house newly released inmates in the heart of the downtown business district.
Among the latest critics of Northern Lights is Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). "I support there being some special program for female offenders," Markley says. "But it never dawned on me that it would take precedence over what's been in line as the most urgent need. There's just no comparison of the magnitude of one versus the other."
As Markley points out, numerous reports over the last four years, including the Statewide Housing Needs Assessment and the 2005-2010 Consolidated Plan, have singled out transitional housing for homeless families as the state's greatest unmet housing need. In contrast, Markley says, the demand for transitional housing for newly released inmates, though not inconsequential, is "fairly low on the ranking."
In October 2005, for example, 33 new families came into COTS needing emergency shelter who couldn't be accommodated in traditional shelters, according to Markley. Each month since then, the nonprofit has seen as many as 18 new families arrive who couldn't be housed in existing shelter beds. Most don't qualify for other types of pubic housing assistance due to bad credit or other circumstances, and have to be put up in emergency overflow motels, which are paid for using state welfare funds.
Markley isn't the only housing advocate irked by the earmarking of limited housing dollars for former inmates. Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, says that as the Department of Corrections budget keeps rising, so has concern among housing and homelessness experts that Montpelier is focusing too much on people coming out of prison.
"It's all about Corrections right now," Searles asserts. "All the meetings that I attend at [the Agency of Human Services] seem to be focused on the whole women-in-custody issue, which is a very important issue, but it's not the one we would put at the top of our list of priorities."
Searles points out that projects for offenders tend to be very costly -- the capital cost alone for the Northern Lights House will run about $670,000, with an additional operating expense of at least $300,000, according to Burlington Housing Authority figures. But once Northern Lights is up and running, Searles says, it will do little to address the demand for street-level housing services throughout Chittenden County.
"I'm sure the project is a worthy project," Searles adds, echoing Markley's sentiment. "What I'm worried about is the unmet needs of existing populations who are struggling to make ends meet and retain their housing or find housing. These are people who have no connection to the Department of Corrections."
But those who deal with women offenders say the growing emphasis is understandable. In the last decade, the number of women under DOC supervision in Vermont has grown by 500 percent, and that figure is expected to double in the next five years. And, because women offenders are more expensive to incarcerate than men, the state has made it a priority to try to keep them out of custody.
As supporters of the Northern Lights project explain, the women it would serve are returning to Burlington anyway and will require a spectrum of social services, regardless of where they're housed. Each year, about 335 offenders are released back to Chittenden County; 12 percent of them are women, and most were imprisoned on drug-related offenses. About two-thirds were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Eight in 10 are mothers; fewer than half are married. Many have limited schooling, job training or parenting skills. Some come back to the community with untreated mental-health issues, alcohol- or drug-abuse problems, or learning disabilities. Not surprisingly, their inability to find or maintain employment and affordable housing often results in their return to prison.
Barbara Rachelson is executive director of the Lund Center, one of the eight agencies in the Northern Lights Consortium. She says that although her organization wasn't involved in the site-selection process, it offered its services because of the Lund Center's long history of working with pregnant and parenting women who have substance-abuse problems. She says she had no idea Northern Lights would draw such criticism from others in the nonprofit community.
"We need to make sure that we're not cannibalizing each other," Rachelson says. "It's that horrible spot we're all in, that social problems are getting worse, and state and federal dollars are scarcer than ever. That's when we have to all band together and not have it be us being pitted against each other."
The Northern Lights House is a collaborative effort of the Howard Center, Mercy Connections, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Vermont Children's Aid Society, the Lund Family Center, Women Helping Battered Women, the Community Justice Center and the Burlington Housing Authority. The project does not require a change in zoning, since the property is already approved for this kind of use.