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Housing is a hurdle for felons

Utah County groups offering assistance

Probation officer Kurtis Robertson checks Shelly Butler's new apartment to make sure she is following probation rules.
Probation officer Kurtis Robertson checks Shelly Butler's new apartment to make sure she is following probation rules.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Shelly Butler beams as she scans the tiny apartment with dingy white paint. Her bedroom is also the living room and the kitchen is the size of a coat closet, but she doesn't care — it's not a motel room.

"I've been in all of them, bouncing back and forth," she says, referring to subsidized motel rooms in downtown Provo — the City Center, Amenity Inn, Executive Inn and Suites and Travelers Inn. "They're not nice."

She didn't like the fighting and the drugs. Even more than that, she said, it was a pervasive feeling of instability that got her down.

Butler, who used to be considered a transient, is working part time and looking for another job so she can get a bigger place. For all of her excitement, though, she still has to face the facts: the apartment is not really hers.

"People don't want to rent to me," the 38-year-old woman said.

Her past felony drug charges didn't just land her in jail, they've also cramped her future chances for jobs and apartments.

Her friend had to rent the apartment for the two of them.

The Deseret Morning News has talked with numerous people working to climb out of the rut of drug use, alcohol abuse and homelessness. Many attend treatment sessions, work with mentors, complete service hours, look for jobs and meet with counselors — all driven by a desire for a better life.

But it's hard when the society they want to rejoin won't accept them.

"There's a whole lot of people who are so marginalized," said Ann Iroz, who works with recovering drug addicts at the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse as a Drug Offender Reform Act therapist. "If you don't grow up with some kind of support already, you're not going to get it from the community."

Those marginalized people in the valley include 29 chronically homeless individuals, according to a fairly rough estimate from a "point-in-time" study done in January 2007 by the Continuum of Care, a group of nearly 40 agencies trying to reduce homelessness in Utah County.

But that doesn't account for the hundreds of people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, dingy motels or the Utah County Jail with no permanent place to call home — people the community doesn't see.

"These folks have a roof over their head and they're not freezing, so things must be OK," said Gene Carly, executive director of the Housing Authority of Utah County. "That's good that they're not freezing, but it doesn't really mean that they have a stable environment."

Utah County's Continuum of Care is made up of city, county and state agencies, as well as local charitable organizations, religious groups and federal offices.

Member groups range from the Provo Police Department to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The groups want to address the lack of housing, as well as all the problems not having a home creates, Carly said.

For homeless families, children often miss out on educational and health opportunities. And without a bathroom, parents can't clean themselves to look presentable for a job, thus perpetuating the poverty cycle.

"The more we learn about these issues, the more complex they are," said Bill Hulterstrom, president of the United Way of Utah County. "It is not a cookie-cutter (solution). We have to learn collectively as a community how to put our resources in the right place to truly give people a chance to get back on their feet."

In a 48-page application for money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Continuum of Care outlined its goals, objectives and obstacles in addressing the issue of homelessness over the next 10 years.

A major step was the Utah County Jail's Re-Entry Assistance Program (REAP), which pairs former inmates with mentors, then places the clients in county-subsidized apartments.

"What we're doing is giving people an opportunity to change their lives," Carly said. "Time will be the ultimate test to see whether or not it works. But I think most of them recognize this may be really their only hope to stop the revolving door between jail, law enforcement, the court system and back to jail."

The Food and Care Coalition also is planning to break ground in the spring for a transitional housing unit with 37 personal units, linking clients with job opportunities, addiction and mental-health counseling and treatment options — giving clients help and hope.

"The people of ours that struggle with substance abuse, they need time off the streets to focus away from, 'Where am I gonna sleep tonight?' or 'Where will I eat tomorrow?"' said Brent Crane, executive director of the Friends of the Coalition, which manages the Food and Care Coalition.

"Life isn't easy ... (and) we want to blame them for the situation they're in. I'm not saying there isn't personal accountability ... but the way back isn't to blame and ostracize. It's to love, and to balance that (love) with personal accountability and access to good services and good information," Crane said.

The goal in this industry is "housing first" — a focus on moving people from transitional housing units to permanent housing. And that permanent housing needs to be affordable.

Each month, the Housing Authority of Utah County provides rent vouchers to nearly 950 households — Section 8 vouchers for individuals whose income falls below the poverty line and Shelter Plus Care vouchers to people who were formerly homeless.

With average rent payments of $450, the housing authority pays nearly $428,000 a month, and nearly 700 households are on the waiting list for help.

"If these folks are homeless, the cost to the community is going to be, I assure you, a whole lot higher than $450 a month," Carly said.

If substance abuse is involved, the price tag goes up even higher, adding on the cost of law enforcement, courts, lawyers.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave nearly $70 million during fiscal year 2007 to Utah for Section 8 housing vouchers and Shelter Plus Care vouchers, said Dwight A. Peterson, field office director for the Salt Lake City HUD office.

But even with more money for more apartments, it's hard to help felons weave back into the system when many landlords won't rent to those with felony backgrounds.

"We run a criminal report on every applicant," said Tom Wood, chief operating officer of Evergreene Management, which doesn't rent to anyone with a felony record. "The main reason that we tell everyone 'no felonies' is we can typically qualify for a good neighbor or crime-free housing program, and we can express that as a selling point to residents. They know everyone else has gone through the same screening process. It brings peace of mind to residents and new applicants."

But Brad Sears, REMS Inc. owner and property manager, acknowledges it's a fine line between compassion and self-protection.

His company has always run credit checks when renting out apartments but is now planning to run criminal checks as well, setting new policies that are fair and equal for everyone.

"It's tough," Sears said. "You can't blame the landlord, he's trying to protect others. But you feel bad for the person who really made a mistake when they were younger (and) have to pay the price for that, forever in some cases. It would be nice to have an easy answer, but there's not one."