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Agencies line up in support of Missoula County as it chases inmate reintegration grant

Members of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department and local jail quiz volunteers acting as ex-prisoners during a reintegration exercise held in November. The county is applying for a grant to help provide housing for inmates leaving prison. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Back in November, service agencies looking to ease an inmate’s transition from jail into the community staged a mock reintegration exercise to better understand the challenges many face when transitioning back into the community.

While the effort was largely fictional, ripe with fake money, fake employment applications and fake parole violations, the difficulties were nonetheless real, and it all pointed to the challenge of finding suitable housing to begin the quest toward a smooth reintegration.

Looking to aid in the process, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday signed off on a grant application that advocates hope will find money from the Montana Board of Crime Control to start a supportive housing program for former inmates.

The state agency issued a request for proposals last year and the county plans to submit its application by next week’s deadline in an effort to access $130,000 for the upstart program in Missoula.

“We’re looking at having a housing navigator-type position who would work with people reentering the community from both jail and prison,” said Erin Kautz, a grants administrator with the country. “That person would help them find housing and connect them with other services to help them navigate the system.”

The Montana Legislature last year freed up $400,000 for the Montana Board of Crime Control to divvy out to successful city and county applicants for housing reintegration. The city of Missoula doesn’t plan to apply for the grant, though it supports the county’s efforts.

While the county is asking for nearly one-third of the crime board’s available funding, it believes the application could find success. The grants are considered competitive.

“We have the second highest number of homeless citizens for the state, and we also have the second highest number of supervised population by probation and parole for the state,” said Kautz. “I think we’re a good candidate.”

The city and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office have both written letters of support backing the local application, as have the Poverello Center and Homeword, a nonprofit that builds and provides affordable and rent-controlled housing.

Kristen Border Patton, director of operations at the Poverello Center, said that while Missoula has made progress in addressing the goals of the city and county’s jail diversion plan, housing remains a barrier for previously incarcerated individuals.

“Many who utilize our services are recently released and the challenges they encounter in finding work and housing are great,” said Patton. “Providing housing opportunities and connections to local resources for previously incarcerated individuals is a necessary step to decreasing recidivism and encouraging a successful reentry program.”

According to Partners for Reintegration, which supports the county’s efforts, roughly 97 percent of Montana prisoners will return to the community. While their crime is theirs to bear, how successfully they reintegrate into the community carries wider social costs and consequences.

Those involved in Missoula’s jail diversion efforts said recidivism carries a financial impact on the state’s economy. It costs the state more than $33,000 a year to house an inmate versus $1,600 to supervise them on probation.

“Many of our housing and financial counseling clients are exiting incarceration, and seeking empowerment and self-sufficiency,” said Andrea Davis, executive director of Homeword. “We see many individuals in this situation come across high housing barriers, which hinder their ability to re-enter the community successfully, despite their absolute genuine desire to do so.”

While Homeword can continue to provide general counseling, Davis added, having a team available to provide direct support would help them move beyond counseling to safe housing and a successful transition.

If successful, Kautz said, the local effort would be managed by the Human Resource Council.

“We have two property managers who have already expressed an interest in being involved with this,” said Kautz. “That person could also manage a landlord risk mitigation fund, which we’ve also been working on with the city.”