Sullivan County eyes JSL building in Claremont for transitional housing
Residents would have work requirements and a curfew and have to undergo drug testing
By GLYNIS HART
CLAREMONT — Sullivan County officials presented the idea of converting the old Junior Sports League building to transitional housing to an audience of community members, explaining why, when and how it could happen and answering questions for two hours Tuesday night.
Not everyone was happy with their answers; several people from the immediate neighborhood — the building is at 45 School Street — said they don’t want transitional housing there.
The county, said Commissioner Jeff Barrette, has been looking for transitional housing for three years. Sullivan County’s Department of Corrections has a unique program for offenders whose crimes are linked to alcohol or substance abuse: the Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills (TRAILS) program requires them to undergo intensive sobriety training for 90 days, then addresses other barriers they may have to leading a productive life, such as lack of education or job training.
“With the TRAILS program the missing link to our success is many of our people are going back to the same housing. They need a sober, safe place to return to,” said Barrette.
The people who would be using the housing are low-level offenders serving sentences of a year or less, who have completed the TRAILS program and are ready to move into the community. However, they would still be under the supervision of the probation department, as well as peer recovery counselors who would be living in the building with them. It would also be open to others who need a safe, sober place to live.
Residents would have a curfew, undergo drug testing, and be fulfilling work requirements —community service and/or paid work. In addition, they would pay rent. “We already have a community corrections officer working with this population,” said David Berry, superintendent of corrections. “Our goal is to provide a higher level of supervision — they are already living in your community.”
“You don’t have to go to six degrees of separation to know somebody affected by the opioid epidemic or alcoholism,” said Commissioner Ben Nelson. “They’re coming back to you folks anyway, whether they’re on their uncle’s couch or whatnot.”
However, several audience members asked why the county couldn’t just have a transitional housing place in Unity, near the jail.
Berry said most of the folks coming out of jail don’t have driver’s licenses. In order for them to get to work, the grocery store, and services, they need to be able to walk there.
One woman from the neighborhood, who lives on Walnut Street, said the building is in the middle of a drug-infested area and transitional housing would make it worse.
“Once probation and parole have offices there my sense is, you’ll see less of it,” said Nelson.
Others asked whether the program would bring in drug offenders from outside the community, to which Berry said, No.
“Not everybody coming out of jail wants to go back to doing what they were doing,” said Jeremy Hartsell, of the Recovery Center. “This program’s going to give people who want to change a chance to do that.”
Berry said it’s been tried in other cities, including Manchester, where it’s been a success.
The building was condemned five years ago and is currently owned by the city. Barrette said the county would make a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to the city and use grant funding to renovate it.
Asked why the audience was only just hearing about the plan, Barrette said they’d been contacted by a grant administrator shortly after Thanksgiving, letting the county know there were two grants available — one from the state, and a federal Community Block Development Grant —that could be used to buy and rehab the building, but the county has to move fast. The first grant deadline is Friday. The second grant deadline is at the end of this month.
Commissioner George Hebert said he works in the trades and works with guys who have completed the TRAILS program. “If the community gives them an opportunity to address these problems, they do,” he said.
Donna Magee, director of the TRAILS program, said a community advisory board could be set up to give people input into the development of the center. Neighbors expressed concerns about parking, especially if the gymnasium gets used for community events. Others asked what it would do to their property taxes, or if it would discourage young professionals in the neighborhood who have put money into fixing up their properties.
“If you cleaned up that area first, this would be an easier sell,” said one neighbor.
County Manager Derek Ferland said they have looked into funding “a few more positions to the drug task force.”
“It’s one of the things we said we’d look at,” said Ferland.
The issue of the JSL building is on the agenda of tonight’s city council meeting, where there will be, as usual, an opportunity for public comment. Should the city agree to sell the building to the county, any plans for its development would go before the planning board.
“We don’t have all the answers,” said Barrette. “We’re not trying to mislead anybody.”
Asked whether the community forum was dictated by the grant application process, Barrette said No. “We’re potentially sticking our neck out for something we think is the right thing to do.”