County council looking at potential transitional housing

Three vacant Georgetown-area homes purchased by Sussex County as part of its airport expansion could be transformed into transitional housing for one or more groups of people in need of a roof over their heads.

Sussex County Council members on Dec. 15 heard presentations from representatives of two human-service organizations – Oxford House and You Count – about their missions to provide affordable, supportive housing options for, respectively, those recovering from addiction and men reentering society after serving time in prison.

Council President Vance Phillips described Tuesday’s presentations as the outcome of “a perfect storm,” resulting from a meeting of the Unite Sussex group that County Administrator David Baker attended, at which housing issues were discussed, and You Count’s Patricia Walk approaching Councilwoman Joan Deaver about support for her work with fathers in prison.

“It came to the administration’s attention that the county currently has three houses that are vacant that were purchased as part of the airport expansion and could be vacant for as much as seven or eight years,” Phillips explained of the final element of a loose proposal that could see the homes used as housing by the groups.

“We thought, perhaps in the short-term – a few years – that [the houses] could be used for a program to help people in the county, so we interviewed these two organizations, and, if there’s no objection, we could follow up further to determine if any of those properties would fit with these programs,” Baker explained.

One of the homes has been used for records storage for the county – necessitating that the heat be kept on, Baker noted. Another is a 1940s-era house that needs work on its septic and HVAC systems. The third is a two-bedroom home that has been vacant for four years, Baker said.

Two of the homes would be available for use until 2020. The third would be available until 2013.

Jim Martin, founder and organizer for six Oxford House facilities in the area for the last year and a former beneficiary of the program himself, noted that Oxford House had previously had locations in Georgetown and Rehoboth Beach but was feeling a need to expand in the current economic climate.

“In the last year, we have found people are looking for affordable housing, and we figured we’d step up to the plate as a program and offer more in this direction,” he said.

Oxford House, Martin emphasized, isn’t the usual kind of transitional housing for those who have had difficulties in their lives and need shelter.

“They’re working, and they’re paying their rent, and that’s what Oxford House is about,” he said. “These people are recovering from addiction and changing their lives around.”

Martin said he’d seen the impact of Oxford House personally.

“I was a substance abuser 14 months ago and was able to turn my life around because of the Oxford House there in Rehoboth Beach,” he said.

Oxford House offers housing for $100 per week. Martin said they try to rent properties that are attractive, “so they can see it’s safe, it’s attractive and, most importantly, it’s sober.”

He emphasized the apparent cost effectiveness of the program alternatives, saying that 2008 statistics had shown Oxford House was cost-effective over long run and its residents were staying sober over the long term.

“One of the problems Sussex County has is affordability,” he noted. “A lot of people are making $30,000 or below. And this is one of the things Oxford House can fulfill.”

Martin emphasized that Oxford House is not a “transient house.” The average stay is about 14 months, and Martin said it could really be known as transitional or even permanent housing.

“We had nine Oxford Houses at the start. Now we have 20,” he said. “And 80 percent of the men are working and paying the rent themselves. I’d like to see a hundred Oxford Houses in Sussex County,” he added.

Martin said Oxford House addresses problems ranging from homelessness to reentry from prison, detox and rehab. And he emphasized the need for such facilities in Sussex.

“About 2,000 people in Sussex County are in need of Oxford House,” he said. With eight houses and an average of eight people per house, “That’s 64 people we’re helping now. But about 2,000 need our help.”

Martin said Oxford House had received a $50,000 state grant to establish a revolving loan account to get the houses started.

“We’re not asking for any money,” he said. “We’re asking for a hand up, not a hand out.”

After an Oxford House is created, money comes in through the rent residents pay, “And we repay that loan,” Martin explained.

In addition to help with finding locations and facilitating the finances involved in establishing an Oxford House, Martin said the organization also had one real need.

“We need people that have our back when we’re trying to establish a house, because there are neighbors who don’t know what Oxford House is all about,” he said. “We’re not rapists. We’re not sex offenders,” he emphasized.

Martin contrasted the cost to the community of creating a $15,000 loan account that could help Oxford House operate on a trial basis for the next two years with the $30,000 it costs to keep a single inmate in prison, as well as the $23,000 to $35,000 per bed it costs to operate a traditional halfway house.

“We’re really a three-quarters house, because we pay our bills,” he noted, running $150 to $350 in cost per bed for Oxford House. “We’re asking you guys to give us a chance to show how cost-effective we can be.”

Walk said her pilot program at Sussex Correctional Institute was also in need of some help with its residential element – something the new program has been lacking.

She described You Count as a reunification/re-entry program, which has already had a pre-pilot program with the Sussex bootcamp operation and plans to start its Inside Outside Dads program in January 2010.

Walk was a probation and parole officer for 15 years in New Castle County and a post-incarceration counselor, as well as a Clydesdale horse breeder. She is also the wife of a fallen police officer and mother of an inmate, she noted, and as such, “I consider myself the poster child” for the program.

You Count is using a national program as a basis to work with a target population of fathers in prison.

“More than 600,000 inmates are released from prison each year,” she explained. “And 67 to 80 percent of them are back in within a year,” she noted, due to probation violations or new charges. “Delaware runs true to that statistic.”

In Sussex, she said, there are 6,500 inmates currently in prison. Of them, 97 will be released into the community in a given year.

“So they are coming. They are our neighbors – 87 percent are substance abusers; 70 percent will be repeat offenders,” she noted, suggesting that her program will help end that cycle.

Walk also contrasted the cost of her program with incarceration, at $26,000 to $30,000 for incarceration costs per inmate, contrasted with her own program at $17,000 per year per person, “which is a big deal when you can keep a person out of prison for a lifetime.”

You Count includes a residential pre-release program among its four phases, designed to “help fathers recognize that what they bring to their children is unique.”

“We need residences. We do not have that residential component that will help strengthen the program,” she added, noting that 50 percent of male inmates are fathers.

Both programs met with support from the council on Tuesday.

“What you’re attempting to do offers some of the greatest promise for men coming out of prison,” Phillips told Walk. “We’ve been looking for economic opportunities,” he added. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t have a social component, as well.”

Council members expressed consensus support for coordination between the county administration and programs such as You Count and Oxford House as potential agreements for one or both groups to use the vacant Sussex County properties move forward from the concept stage.

Phillips noted there could be some zoning issues to deal with before the way to that end is cleared, as well as some work on the details of a financial structure under which Oxford House could continue its model of repaying loans to get the facilities established.