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Skagit County has a new jail. Should the old one become a homeless shelter?

Skagit County opened its new $48 million, 400-bed Community Justice Center earlier this month. The former jail was built to house 83 inmates.
Skagit County opened its new $48 million, 400-bed Community Justice Center earlier this month. The former jail was built to house 83 inmates. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

With inmates out of the old Skagit County Jail, some elected officials in the county want to repurpose the building into a short-term shelter for the homeless.

In a Skagit Valley Herald letter to the editor, Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton reignited a conversation that has been sporadic since the new Community Justice Center neared completion.

“While it may not be the most welcoming or comfortable accommodations, it would be a place where folks could get a bed, a meal, a shower, launder their clothes, maybe a doctor checkup and also have access to social services that could be brought directly to them at that facility,” Sexton wrote.

The letter calls for the community to consider “a light retrofit” of the 35,000 square-foot vacant jail to convert it into a place where the county’s homeless can take shelter.

However, representatives of the county, which owns the land and the building, are skeptical about that possibility.

We can’t be the first county to have an old jail and repurpose it for something good.

Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton

Although the inmates have been moved, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and Skagit County District Court have offices in the building and plan to expand into the jail. Other county departments are also looking to the former jail for storage and office space.

“Other occupants are struggling with space issues,” said Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend.

The Skagit County commissioners have taken the same position as Wend, saying turning the former jail into a shelter is not the best use of the space.

Sexton said his letter was intended to start a conversation, both about future uses of the jail and about how to better help the homeless.

“If (homelessness) is the crisis we say it is, let’s talk about every option,” he said.

Sexton said he doesn’t have all the answers and hopes his comments will spur discussion, research into what other communities have done, and perhaps help find grant opportunities for remodels.

“We can’t be the first county to have an old jail and repurpose it for something good,” he said.

Skagit County opened its new $48 million, 400-bed Community Justice Center on Oct. 7. The old jail was built to hold 83.

Wend said the idea seems great on the surface, but it ignores major problems with the old jail.

Without major renovations, the building is designed to minimize privacy and restrict access, he said. Members of the public can’t get in without going through security – something that isn’t conducive to housing.

“(Jails) are built for supervision, lines of sight, controlled movement,” Wend said. “There’s very little dignity in that place.”

Between replacing cell doors, removing security checkpoints, painting, rewiring and breaking up the restrictive floor plan, County Administrator Tim Holloran said the cost would add up.

“People see us as being defensive, but it has to be cost-efficient,” he said.

“This isn’t drywall,” Wend said. “You’d be taking out big concrete walls.”

Sheriff Will Reichardt said his office will hopefully move upstairs in order to give their current space on the first floor to District Court, which is also suffering from space issues.

“We have no plans to move the sheriff’s office (out of the building),” Halloran said.

If it’s not safe inmates, then it isn’t safe for the homeless population.

Kayla Schott-Bresler, housing resource coordinator with Skagit County

And while the old jail has restrooms, showers, laundry, heat and a kitchen, Wend said extensive repairs would be necessary to keep these utilities fully functional.

Kayla Schott-Bresler, housing resource coordinator with the county, is similarly skeptical of the idea of turning the jail into a shelter.

When the county was justifying the need for a new jail, it said the old facility was no longer safe for inmates, she said.

“If it’s not safe inmates, then it isn’t safe for the homeless population,” Schott-Bresler said.

The homeless, who often suffer from mental health problems and drug addiction, should be encouraged to seek help, Schott-Bresler said. Putting those services in a former jail upstairs from the Sheriff’s Office, she said, would dissuade them from getting help.

Wend agrees.

“Putting them in a jail supports the notion that these guys have issues with criminality that requires additional security,” he said.

Wend said he is frustrated he didn’t hear from Sexton before the letter was written and feels Sexton didn’t present the idea in good faith. He said he believes the letter is an attempt to push the homeless problem off of Burlington and onto the county and Mount Vernon, where the old jail is located.

“(Homelessness) is a problem we all share,” he said. “(The conversation) is not as collaborative as it should be.”

Sexton, however, said he hopes the letter will start the kind of collaborative countywide conversation Wend is looking for.

“We are not all Burlington or Mount Vernon or Anacortes, but we are all Skagit County,” Sexton said. “The homeless situation involves all of us.”

After taking a tour of the building Friday morning with officials from cities and the county, he said he was even more convinced a shelter could work there.

“If there was a fraction of the exuberance around building a new jail put toward this project, it would already be done,” he said.

The county is talking about why the shelter wouldn’t be perfect, but Sexton said it just has to be better than sleeping under an overpass.

“We don’t even need all of it,” he said. “Take half of it. How many beds could we fit in there?”

Burlington Councilwoman Tonya Bieche called the idea “pretty much a no-brainer.”

One of the biggest barriers to getting housing projects off the ground is the upfront cost of acquiring land, she said, which wouldn’t be a problem for the county in this case.

“We’d be millions of dollars ahead with the facility, owning the building and owning the land,” she said.

County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said Sexton’s letter to the editor underestimates the amount of work needed to make the cells feel comfortable.

She said the cells don’t have electrical outlets or control over their own lights. It’s for reasons like this that she thinks the county shouldn’t be giving the homeless population leftovers from the justice system.

“I don’t think that’s the highest and best use for the facility,” Janicki said.

Schott-Bresler said the county is working with Mount Vernon – and specifically with Councilwoman Mary Hudson – on finding a place for a cold-weather shelter for this winter.

She said the county is hoping to work with a church to donate space in the evenings where 40 to 50 people can sleep. The county would pay for staffing and would collect donations.

While Hudson works on this with Schott-Bresler, she still supports using the old jail, or at least part of it, as a homeless shelter.

“I was totally on board with what (Sexton) was saying,” she said.

Hudson said she broached the topic of using the old jail as a shelter with Wend and Schott-Bresler at a Skagit County Community Action event several months ago, but got the feeling they felt it wasn’t a good idea.

Now that a mayor is suggesting it publicly, she hopes it will start a larger conversation.

She said she understands that using the old jail as a shelter shouldn’t be a permanent solution, but at the very least she would like a detailed explanation of why a shelter wouldn’t work there and would like help in finding at place that would work.

“With this big an issue, we can’t keep pushing it away,” she said. “I hate seeing people living outside in this weather.”

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