Housing providers help released inmates clear important hurdle

CASPER — When Brandt Cross was granted parole, he called Monte Henrie. 

Cross had heard about Henrie from others on the inside. He has a safe place to live while you get back on your feet, they told him. 

Cross spent four years in prison for drug possession and breaking and entering. If he messes up while on parole, he could go back for several more, he said. Before his arrest, he snuck into someone’s barn to avoid freezing to death. He said he was on the run because of drugs. 

But on a recent spring morning, Cross — sporting a buzz-cut, T-shirt, jeans and a cross necklace — had a contagious optimism about him. 

He’s working a steady job at a gas station. He recently celebrated his son’s 6th birthday. They watched the lunar eclipse together. Eventually, Cross plans to move to Colorado to spend more time with his mom. 

Having a place to stay and people to support you on the outside makes all the difference, he said. At Henrie’s, everyone is on the same path. 

“I got lucky — when I called Monte,” Cross said. 

But for many who’ve been to prison, housing represents a tremendous obstacle, people on both sides of the criminal justice system say. 

Those who have spent time in prison are seven times more likely to be homeless than the general population, according to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank focused on reducing mass incarceration. They’re especially vulnerable within a couple years after their release, the study showed. 

And without a place to sleep at night, they could get in trouble with the law again. Previous research shows around one in six inmates face homelessness in the year leading up to their sentence. 

Henrie owns and operates a sober living house on Casper’s west side. Many of his residents come right out of prison or treatment centers. He helps people stay sober, get jobs and find permanent housing. 

He, too, struggled with addiction once, and helping others is what keeps him clean, he said. 

“Most guys say if it wasn’t for me, they don’t know where they’d be,” Henrie said. “Probably (a) revolving door, you know? Going back into the prison system.” 

Even those who went to prison or jail a long time ago say they face barriers to housing stability. A lack of affordable homes means more people are competing for less inventory. Some with criminal records say they’re getting left out in the cold. 

When they’re a good match for their residents, programs like Henrie’s help stop that cycle, people who’ve been to prison say. But there’s only so many of those homes available in Wyoming. They wish there was more help for people like them, they said — and that it was easier to find. 

Next to finding a job, housing can represent one of the biggest questions for people coming out of prison. 

Inmates in Wyoming’s prison system have case workers who help them plan for reentry, said Severn Shores, deputy reentry program manager for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. 

When deemed “safe and appropriate,” some inmates return to their family homes after they’re let out, Shores wrote in an email. (A request for what proportion of reentering inmates fall into this category was not returned in time for print.) 

If that’s not an option, staff try to connect them with another safe place to go, Shores wrote. That could include anything from affordable housing, sober living homes, residential treatment centers and, as a last resort, homeless shelters. The Department of Corrections keeps a database of housing and community resources around the state. 

Certain inmates — including people who are disabled, elderly, sex offenders and those who spent more than 10 years in prison — can qualify for “enhanced case management,” according to Shores. That means assistance from one of the agency’s nine reentry specialists, he wrote. 

Parole agents can also help inmates find a place to stay. 

But even with support, housing is hard to sort out ahead of time, said Richard Burton, director of correctional services for Volunteers of America’s Northern Rockies region. (Volunteers of America operates one of three state-contracted halfway houses in Wyoming.) 

It’s not like prisoners can stay up-to-date on apartment listings — they don’t have internet access, after all. 

And it’s easy for plans to go sideways, Burton said. An inmate might write to a landlord asking if they have any open apartments, for example. That landlord might even agree to hold one for them. But that’s a far cry from a lease; the unit could be gone by the time the inmate gets out. 

“A lot of companies will actually tell you yes,” he said. “And then it’s not really there.” 

Recently released inmates haven’t been earning an income, either. Unless they have savings, or friends or family willing to spot them, they might not be able to afford rent. 

“The offenders in our institutions, in general, were arrested with little to no funds or resources to their names,”wrote Shores. 

There are some grants inmates can apply for to help with reentry costs. The biggest is the Department Assist Fund, Shores said. It’s a pot of cash funded by inmate expenses like using the phones, downloading music or emails, buying things from the cafeteria and paying off disciplinary fines. 

To get money from the Department Assist Fund, inmates have to finish any treatment programs they’ve been ordered to complete during incarceration, said Shores — like for substance abuse or sex offenses. 

“Priority will be given to those who have been actively working to achieve the goals set forth in their institutional case plans and release plans and have at- tempted to budget for their release,” Shores wrote in the email. 

People can also apply for the funds if they run into an emergency within 90 days of their release, he said. 

A request for the average amount of money awarded through the fund was not available in time for publication. Sometimes, people are court-ordered to participate in special reentry programs as part of their release. The programs are meant to serve as an adjustment period between incarceration and outside life.
The state contracts with three different entities to run facilities that serve such a purpose. 

Since all three reentry centers are operated by different groups, there’s no guarantee of consistency in how they are operated. Privately run facilities can lack transparency and, in some cases, have served as an obstacle for those trying to leave the criminal justice system. A recent investigation by the Star-Tribune uncovered reports of coronavirus outbreaks, insufficient meals and unsanitary living conditions at the Casper Reentry Center. 

Cross was originally supposed to go to the Casper Reentry Center, he said. He specifically asked his parole officer if he could go to Henrie’s home instead. 

Men arrive at Henrie’s house with very little — the “Tijuana suitcase,” he likes to call it. 

Odds are they’re going through some psychological whiplash. Life is painstakinglystructured in prison — you have someone telling you when to leave your cell, when to eat, when to sleep. 

“It took me a little over two months before I could even venture out of the house,”Cross said. 

With nine beds, Henrie’s single-story home feels tight at times. But it’s cozy and clean. There are three bedrooms upstairs, and two downstairs. Henrie sleeps in the basement, sharing a room with another resident. 

Inside, it looks like any other home. Henrie has two cats, Taffy and C.J. He’s stuffed the cupboards with collectibles and family photos, hung sports memorabilia on the fridge and in the basement. There’s a grassy backyard for summertime grilling. The only giveaway that it’s a sober living house, perhaps, is the beat-up, thoroughly underlined Alcoholics Anonymous book in the living room. 

Rent is $450 a month. Henrie doesn’t get any outside funding to run the house, he said. 

There are house rules: No drugs or alcohol. Residents help with the chores. Curfew is 10 p.m. 

Henrie can’t supervise them round-the-clock; he has a full-time job as a chef at Casper Mountain Rehabilitation and Care Center. But he makes sure his guests are eating, sleeping and staying on the straight-and- narrow. 

“Knowing how to run a washing machine — I show them how to do that,” Henrie said. “And I show them how to clean dishes.” 

He encourages them to start saving up: “Money is your best friend,” he tells them, the key to their independence and stability. When residents apply for apartments, he tries to put in a good word for them. 

His housemates try to get jobs as soon as they can. Many of them are enrolled in weekly substance abuse, mental health and therapy programs, too. It’s a juggling act, especially because they don’t all have cars. 

People can stay as long as they need to. Recovery, Henrie said, isn’t something that can be rushed. 

Housing discrimination laws make it illegal for landlords to choose not to rent to someone for things like race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. But in most states — including Wyoming — people can be denied housing due to their criminal history. For perspective, roughly one in three adults Americans have been arrested on a felony charge, according to the FBI. There isn’t federal data on how many U.S. residents have been convicted of a crime. 

Most landlords ask prospective tenants to divulge any criminal history on apartment applications. Convictions are usually public record, though — so landlords can look them up regardless of what applicants write down. 

The rise of online background check services have made it easy to do this with the click of a button. They typically include things like eviction and credit history, too. 

Those reports are often compiled automatically, leaving them vulnerable to mistakes. A 2020 investigation by the The New York Times and nonprofit news outlet The Markup found hundreds of federal lawsuits had been filed against background check businesses for allegedly generating incorrect reports. According to the suits, this led landlords to turn away prospective tenants for crimes they didn’t commit. 

But even those who do have records have reservations about the checks. It’s like prolonging a sentence you’ve already done time for, they said. 

Dawn Serna was evicted from her Gillette home after being charged with possession of methamphetamine. She hasn’t been convicted, but she and her fiance have previous felonies on their records. 

Suddenly, she had to find a new place to stay. It’s a lot harder than it used to be, she said. Communities across the country have been smacked with housing shortages and rising prices in recent years. Nationally, rents rose about 12% last year, according to a report by rental listing website Zumper. 

She ran into a lot of places that didn’t take felons, she said. Sometimes, they told her up front. Other times, she was denied without explanation. 

Serna found another place after 2 1/2 months of searching. It was in rough shape when she moved in, she said, but it’s somewhere to sleep at night. She’s helping renovate it. 

How’d she get her foot in the door? Her landlord, Joe Kraemer, bought a trailer from her daughter a few years back. 

“I had to finally go to someone that I knew,” she said. 

Kraemer owns about 40 rentals in Gillette. Most of them are trailers he bought for cheap and flipped. 

Looking at peoples’ criminal histories helps him get a feel for tenants — so he can trust they’ll pay rent and stay out of trouble, he said. It doesn’t make sense to rent to someone who has warrants out for their arrest, for instance. 

Still, he prefers to talk with applicants personally, which, he said, tells him the most about whether someone would be a good fit. 

It’s a tough market, he admits. Sometimes he gets over a hundred applications for a single unit. Years ago, when people came to him desperate for a place to stay, he’d be able to work something out, he said. But that’s just not possible these days. 

“It’s just a sea of people, they kind of come in waves,” he said. “And it’s hard to remember the water, y’know?” 

Volunteers of America’s reentry center in Gillette relies on relationships with local landlords to get clients stable housing, said Burton, the group’s senior director of corrections. But some of those rental properties have changed hands during the ongoing real estate boom, he said. 

And that’s complicated things. One of the apartment complexes in town that used to take people from the re-entry center was bought recently. The new owners don’t want to rent people with records, said Burton. 

Some cities have introduced laws pushing back against this. In 2017, Seattle passed an ordinance making it illegal for landlords to deny housing applications based on criminal records. 

Seattle’s law also bars landlords from running criminal background checks on potential tenants, except when looking them up on specific registries. 

In 2020, a group of landlords took the city to court over the new law, arguing that it violated their property rights and put them and their tenants in danger. A district court sided with the city in early 2021. The landlords have since filed for an appeal. 

Kyle Dresser, a Casper probation and parole officer who’s referred inmates to Henrie, said that programs for people coming out of prison have grown considerably in the past decade. They’re becoming a more frequent condition on parole grants, too. 

It makes a huge difference when former inmates have a place to go, Dresser said. 

“I’ve had really, really good success with people that go to (Henrie’s) house,” Dresser said. “I’ve even talked to some of them that have done well about, you know, maybe one day starting their own sober living house.” 

But Henrie only has space for eight residents, plus himself. He gets maybe five letters from inmates who want to stay there a month. 

“I have to turn a lot away,” he said. One person begged Henrie to let him sleep in the garage. 

A list of resources from the Wyoming Department of Corrections identified just four sober living homes in Natrona County. Most of them only serve men. Many can’t accept people convicted of sex offenses, either — including Henrie’s. 

Henrie also doesn’t take people who have been convicted of violent crimes. He just doesn’t feel qualified to work with them. 

Sober living homes don’t provide formal treatment, and for the most part, aren’t subject to regulation. Some have taken advantage of their residents. 

In 2018, Congress introduced a bill that would set standards for sober living homes. It’d also make grants available for states to start up new, accredited facilities. The bill passed in the House of Representatives, but died in the Senate. Gary Papke has known Henrie for years. He’s staying at Henrie’s house while on probation. Papke grew up in a family that struggled with addiction, and said he started using drugs in high school. “I thought that’s what you did,” he said. 

It helps to live with others who get what addiction is like, he said. 

For now, Papke is focusing on his treatment classes, working on his relationship with his fiancee and getting to know himself. 

“I don’t even know the kind of hobbies I want to do,” he said. 

His next goal will be getting a good rental history. He spent years living in hotels — which he said trapped him in housing instability because he couldn’t use them as references.

Henrie and Papke sat next to each other in the living room, talking like old friends. Taffy the cat snoozed on the couch opposite them. As they conversed, an unspoken sense of pride passed between the two — and under- standing of how far each other had come. 

This line of work isn’t for everyone, Henrie admitted. But it’s the success stories, he said, that make it all worth it.