Two halfway houses opening in Bellingham to help former inmates avoid homelessness

Two halfway houses will open in Bellingham in the next two months to provide housing to more than 50 federal, state and Whatcom County inmates who otherwise would have been released and become homeless.

One will be in the former SSP Alternatives Corrections Facility at 1641 Baker Creek Place and will house 16 people recently released from federal prisons. It's set to open May 1.

The second will be in City Gate apartments, 607 E. Holly St., and will house 38 people recently released from state prisons and Whatcom County Jail. It's set to open June 1.

Both are intended to keep the former inmates from re-offending by providing them a place to stay, constant monitoring, and connections to employment opportunities and mental health and substance abuse services, said Thad Allen, a re-entry specialist for the state Department of Corrections.

"You have an impact on people when they have a roof over their head," Allen said. "It never works out good when you drop them off on Railroad Avenue homeless."

Seattle-based Pioneer Human Services will operate both facilities, with funding from the state and federal governments, said Larry Fehr, senior vice president.

To be eligible, the former inmates cannot have sex offense or arson convictions. Violent offenders will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Fehr said. Also, they must have been a resident of Whatcom County at some point, he said.

Fehr said the facilities will have staff devoted to monitoring the residents at all times, and the residents will not be allowed to leave without approved passes. They will also be able to leave on approved social outings with a sponsor, Fehr said.

The facility on East Holly Street has enough funding to operate for three years, said Gail de Hoog, a housing specialist with Whatcom County Health Department.

It's funded through a 2007 grant from the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development that is worth $1.2 million for the three-year span, she said. Whatcom County government is administering the grant and contributing $121,000, de Hoog said.

The facility at Baker Creek Place is funded through an initial five-year contract with the Department of Justice worth $817,000 annually if all 16 beds are used, Fehr said. He said 34 beds are available at the facility, but the initial contract is for 16 beds.

Wendy Jones, chief of Whatcom County Jail, said the "housing-first" approach is the best way to get homeless offenders out of the criminal justice system and to start rebuilding their lives.

Twenty-five former inmates from the county jail will be housed at the facility on East Holly Street, Jones said. Thirteen former inmates from state prisons will fill the rest of the apartments, Fehr said.

"It's a resource that's never existed before" in Whatcom County, Jones said. "I have a lot of hope for this. It will really be interesting to see how this all plays out."

The facility at Baker Creek Place is in Mount Baker neighborhood; the East Holly Street site borders Sehome and York neighborhoods.

Sehome resident Charles Dyer said the facility shouldn't present any community safety concerns in his neighborhood. Another halfway house at North Garden and East Chestnut streets hasn't generated many complaints from neighbors, he said.

More neighbors are more concerned about Western Washington University student parties or drug houses than the halfway house, said Dyer, a member of Sehome Neighborhood Association.

"It should be a positive program," he said. "If you don't have the programs, the transition outward is even worse."

Don Hale, president of Mount Baker Neighborhood Association, said the facility in his neighborhood would be a positive thing. For one, he said, the site is in an industrial area away from residences. The facility also has brought jobs to Bellingham, as Pioneer Human Services hired several people to staff the center, Hale said.

"You have to have it," he said. "We'll just have to make the best of it. They're releasing them in their community, which I think is smart by the feds."