Misti Liberti had few available housing options when she was released from jail last fall. Liberti sometimes resorted to couchsurfing with acquaintances she knew before her jail sentence; a big gamble for someone who has spent years battling chemical dependency.
"When I got out I was kind of at the mercy of staying with people, and you put yourself in a risky environment sometimes. You just go back to what’s familiar," she says.
At that point in her life Liberti was particularly familiar with, "Heroin. And it’s gotten me in places where I didn’t want to be and charges I never thought I’d see myself [facing]."
Montana’s Commission on Sentencing says prisons and jails in the state are over capacity. Their population grew 11 percent between 2008 and 2015. It’s expected to grow another 13 percent in the next five years.
In an effort to keep people from returning to jail and prison, the 2017 Montana Legislature approved $400,000 in funding for a pilot program to help former inmates find stable housing when they’re released.
Liberti credits it with helping her settle into a stable life after her release last fall.
"Yeah, it’s just a studio apartment, and it's large enough for me and my chihuahua. It’s not in a sketchy neighborhood. It’s my serenity," she says.
Liberti’s probation officer connected her with the housing help. The state program also helps qualifying participants brush up on their job-hunting skills and find affordable housing. It even provides a few months rent until they get back on their feet.
That provides incentive for landlords who might be wary of renting to people involved in the criminal justice system.
Denison von Mauer owns five properties with a total of 11 units.
von Mauer is one of about 15 landlords participating in Missoula’s Supportive Housing Program. Last year one of his tenants who's in the program – not Misti Liberti – got into trouble near the end of her probation and wound up back in jail.
von Mauer found himself stuck with all her belongings and furniture in his soon-to-be unpaid for apartment unit. He turned to Missoula’s Supportive Housing program for help.
"It would have been my responsibility – because her family has abandoned her – to move her stuff into a storage unit, figure out how that's gonna get paid, do a whole bunch of paperwork with the state. The rent was also late. She needed to have rent through the end of March."
That would have totaled $2,400, according to von Mauer.
The Housing Pilot Program agreed to help pay that bill, giving her another chance to work out her problems.
von Mauer says it saved him from losing revenue, not to mention a big general hassle.
He’s now expressing interest in renting out to someone else in the program.
That doesn’t surprise Kate Jerrim Ybarra.
"I think landlords want to rent to people who can pay the rent. If you present a comprehensive picture of how rent will be paid, and you present rental references, generally speaking that’s what landlords look at," she says.
Ybarra is a housing coordinator for Missoula’s District XI Human Resource Council which manages the local grant money. Missoula County, Ravalli County and the city of Billings successfully applied for the funding last year. The program is broadly overseen by the Montana Board of Crime Control.
"I think if we want people to be successful and not be in situations where they might reoffend, it’s crucially important that they have their basic needs met," Ybarra says. "It’s very hard to go through day-to-day life if you don’t know how you’re going to get food, that your kids are going to be safe and where you’re going to lay your head at night."
The Human Resource Council has received a total of 76 referrals for Supportive Housing services since last June. Some of those people didn’t qualify. A handful of others never showed up for appointments. Another 54 were assessed, and 33 of them were successfully placed in housing. They also received other services such as job search assistance or SNAP benefits. And 15 more are still being processed through the program. Sexual or violent offenders are not allowed.
Susy Paddock is with Alternatives, a non-profit community corrections agency in Billings.
"Statistics show that successful re-entry involves a number of different things. Two of those happen to be housing and employment," Paddock says.
Since June, Alternatives has served about 57 supportive housing clients. Not all are ex-cons. Some referrals come from local drug courts.
"We’re trying to get them off on a really solid footing with good housing and employment so they can move forward and just become really great, viable people in their community," Paddock says.
State Rep. Kim Dudik, a Democrat from Missoula, agrees in principle.
"But the way it was rolled out, it wasn’t quite the way we intended," she says.
Dudik, who is also running to be Montana’s next attorney general in 2020, doesn’t think the state got enough bang for its buck from the 2-year-old pilot program.
"It’s only available now to help offenders in three communities; in Missoula, Billings and Ravalli County. And no tribal entities applied for grants, so nobody in tribal communities are being served by the program."
Legislators this session agreed to continue include funding for the Supportive Housing Program at its current $400,000 level in the two-year state budget bill, but its status as a grant program is over. It will instead be managed at the state level.
"The Department of Corrections will use the framework they have in place, using their re-entry staff and probation and parole officers to identify people who are in need, and then to assist them with housing vouchers," Dudik says.
Meaning when someone leaves incarceration, Corrections Department officials will centrally determine who would be a good candidate for Supportive Housing assistance.
Again, Missoula’s Kate Jerrim Ybarra.
"I’m glad they’re going to put funding out there still because it’s a vulnerable population that needs services."
But Ybarra hopes Corrections provides what she says is the same thorough, personalized service currently offered by local agencies.
"I think if there’s comprehensive assessment and designated staff to provide the wraparound services, then that will work well. I think that it would be difficult for probation and parole, with the very large caseloads that they have, to also add another duty."
Nobody who spoke with MTPR for this story wants the state to simply issue vouchers for extended hotel stays. Representative Dudik says that does not provide adequate stability.
The next phase of the Supportive Housing program will restrict spending to housing. No funds will be used for additional overhead such as personnel.
Missoula’s Kate Ybarra believes people facing tough challenges benefit the most from personalized case management services.
"Whether it be income as a barrier, or inability to work because they’re disabled, or a felony, or no rental history – any of these things are a barrier, and I think that it does require intensive work on the part of someone to help the person work through it."
According to Ybarra, it’s cost about $4,000 per person to source stable housing for the 33 people who’ve successfully completed Missoula’s Supportive Housing program, including staffing costs. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of incarcerating someone who gets in trouble and goes back to jail.
Missoula’s Misti Liberti is one of those 33 initial success stories. Liberti now has a steady job. She says it’s not her dream career, but adds it's at least honest work that enables her to pay her own rent. She’s come a long way in the past seven months and is grateful for the second chance.
"I didn't realize there was so much help out there. I just feel like I can trust them, and they helped me get up on my feet, so I just appreciate that."