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SLO County program helps parolees get back on their feet — but it could be forced to close

Mike spent his first night back home in San Luis Obispo after three days on a bus down by the creek.

Returning as required to SLO County fresh off a 10-year stint at Pelican Bay state prison in Crescent City drained most of the $200 he had been handed out of the gate.

His release came amid the January rain, and he was cold, wet and had no where to go, no car, no job. The parole office was no help; they wanted to get his photograph and paperwork in order but little else.

Mike said that with few reasons to exist in the free world, he figured he’d soon return to prison as he had many times before.

“I looked around, said ‘this is not where I want to be,’” he said.

What changed this time, he said, is he found Restorative Partners.

Now, sitting on the living room couch in one of the nonprofit’s five San Luis Obispo County sober living and re-entry houses this week, Mike wrings his tattooed hands and nods enthusiastically as he describes his newfound life, less than five months after his release.

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His first day back from prison was spent in the creek on a rainy January. At risk of relapse he found Restorative Partners which offered a path to recovery. He requested anonymity to share his story. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

He’s still sober. He’s been issued his first-ever driver’s license and has a full-time job driving. He’s re-connected with family. Though he still lives in one of the sober living homes, keeping to a strict regimen and sharing his successes with other parolees, a place of his own is on the horizon.

“They took me right away,” he said of his first visit to Restorative Partners. “The moment they did that, my life turned around 180 degrees.”

The Tribune is not identifying Mike — not his real name — as to not jeopardize his recent successes, but his story of redemption isn’t unique. Many others who have been released to San Luis Obispo County from state prison and benefited from services provided by Restorative Partners say it’s the only gig in town providing parolees the tools they need to get on the right track and avoid the pitfalls that lead to recidivism.

But one of its most crucial programs — re-entry homes — is now at risk after a large chunk of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) funding was suddenly pulled from under the organization in March.

Even though there are recently paroled people in need of a place to stay in SLO County — about 250 people return to the Central Coast after incarceration every year — many beds in Restorative Partners’ five re-entry homes sit empty, as the state has ceased referring parolees to the organization.

In February, the nonprofit was serving 23 men and women whose services were funded by the state. On Friday, only seven clients were funded, according to Restorative Partners.

Though California in recent years has undergone ambitious criminal justice reforms, it takes money to provide these kinds of rehabilitative services. And Sister Theresa Harpin, co-founder of Restorative Partners, says the state is not following through.

“We as citizens and community members should all be concerned,” Harpin said. “We have a responsibility not to just shuffle off our neighbors.”

Harpin said Restorative Partners has had to lay off two of its 14 full-time staff members since the cuts. One of its San Luis Obispo sober living homes, LyonHeart, is at risk of closing its doors after just a year of operation.

Restorative Partners is seeking sponsors and donors to help keep their services going, and with the help of the community and a first-of-its-kind fundraising event — featuring competing grilled cheese sandwiches teams — hopes to continue to meet its clients’ needs.

“These people have done a lot of work to be on the outside,” Harpin said. “I think we need to meet them at the door.”

Transforming lives

Harpin formed Restorative Partners in 2011 under the sponsorship of the Sisters of St. Joseph Ministerial Services, initially focusing on providing restorative justice programs at San Luis Obispo County Jail and Juvenile Hall.

The organization vastly expanded its services after receiving its 501(c)(3) status in 2015 thanks to both grassroots fundraising and private benefactors, as well as state funding through CDCR’s division of rehabilitative programs.

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Sister Theresa Harpin, co-founder of Restorative Partners, an organization that helps recently incarcerated people find their way back into productive roles. They have had to face changing funding patterns recently. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Restorative Partners had, until recently, its full-time staff members and a small army of over 200 volunteers to offer more than 30 programs at local facilities, as well as the full-service re-entry program for former inmates transitioning back to society in San Luis Obispo County.

About a third of their staff have been formerly incarcerated, including a few former “lifers,” who know best how to help those just getting out.

“We embrace people with experience,” Harpin said. “They’re the closest to our clients.”

A fundamental part of their mission, Harpin said, is to assist parolees and probationers stay clean, get a job, find housing and, most of all, stay out of trouble.

“Our mission is really transforming lives,” Harpin said.

‘Counting down the days’

Restorative Partners’ re-entry programs are largely funded through CDCR’s Rehabilitative Division’s Specialized Treatment for Optimized Programming (STOP) grants. The San Luis Obispo office of State Parole — which has no funding for re-entry services — would refer an appropriate parolee to Restorative Partners through a third-party contractor prior to the current shortfall, and the client would receive funding within the week.

But in December 2018, a new provider, GEO Re-Entry Services, took over the contract for CDCR’s STOP funding programs for the Central Coast region. During a quarterly meeting March 12, GEO told all service providers that the company had to significantly reduce its parolee placements for the current fiscal year to meet its budget and that CDCR had to cut funding for its rehabilitative programs by 17 percent.

Harpin said those cuts, effective immediately, amounted to a 40 to 50 percent funding gap for Restorative Partners’ re-entry services.

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow sent a letter last month to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging an administrative review of CDCR’s STOP funding program, and to ensure that proven programs such as Restorative Partners in smaller counties — not just urban programs — are considered when allocating resources.

“(Restorative Partners’) community-based services for returning citizens have a direct impact on reducing recidivism in our community,” Dow wrote April 24. “Without your direct intervention, I fear that Sister Theresa’s successful program will be forced to close its doors and that more returning citizens will return to prison through recidivism instead of successfully re-entering our community.”

Vicky Waters, spokeswoman for CDCR, said by email Friday that while funding for re-entry programs has actually increased over the past several years, there has also been an increase in the number of parolees returning to society statewide.

Kathy Priznich, vice president of The GEO Group’s re-entry business development, said by phone Friday that the company has had to make tough decisions after it was handed a bad situation, mid-contract cycle, by the previous contractor.

That company, Center Point, had significantly over placed participants, Priznich said, ultimately drawing down the budget allotment for the remainder of this fiscal year.

“We had to work with the budget that was left over,” Priznich said. “We’re counting down the days until we get a new budget.”

Priznich said Restorative Partners and San Luis Obispo County aren’t alone; other providers throughout the state are feeling the same pinch at a time when the needs are greater than ever for treatment beds and critical services for the state’s parolees.

The company is confident, however, that there will be a restoration of funding in the next fiscal year July 1, and Priznich said the firm will be strategic in allocating what funding it gets.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact we need to spread the funding out,” she said.

‘Hurt people hurt people’

There’s no shortage of success stories at Restorative Partners.

Mia Alexander was paroled from prison about seven years ago, and like Mike, recalled a similar uncertain future. A San Luis Obispo native, Alexander said people who are released into society after being incarcerated for years or decades go into survival mode if they have nothing.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “You inevitably have to figure it out on your own.”

Thankfully, Alexander connected with Restorative Partners.

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Mia Alexander of Restorative Partners helps recently jailed people find their way back into productive roles. She has followed the same path and will be graduating with honors from Cal Poly this year. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“They practice what they preach here,” Alexander said. “My history was left at the door.”

Alexander said they have a saying at the nonprofit that “hurt people hurt people,” meaning that helping people get back on their feet after incarceration has a positive ripple effect on others. From a public safety perspective alone, it makes sense, she said.

After benefiting from their programs, Alexander began volunteering for Restorative Partners and today works for them full-time as a re-entry support specialist.

Alexander, who this year was awarded outstanding senior at Cal Poly, will graduate next month from the university summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in sociology.

“We meet so many people who could be Mia,” Harpin said. “For some, it’s not going to happen and what a waste that is for all of us.”

‘Disappointing and scary’

Restorative Partners has the capacity to serve 21 men and 10 women at its five re-entry houses across the county, as well as about 20 additional outpatient clients. But some beds are sitting empty.

Dave Barnhill, one of the organization’s housing coordinators, was himself a “lifer” before he embraced prison services and was eventually released after 23 years, he said. He began volunteering for Restorative Partners before being hired full-time and now oversees operations at LyonHeart.

The clients there stick to a strict regimen, and when the state funds a parolee’s placement in the program, they have direct access to what they need to keep moving forward.

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Dave Barnhill oversees operations at LyonHeart, one of five Restorative Partners homes for men and women making the transition from prison to civilian life. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“It works great, but it’s not free,” Barnhill said.

The uncertainty over funding has caused some anxiety in the house, Barnhill said, which is not helpful.

At Hope House, Restorative Partners’ women’s sober living home in Los Osos, at least one person is at immediate risk of losing access to services simply because of money.

Charlie, who was released from prison in March, is one of Restorative Partners’ unfunded clients who came to the organization after the cutbacks. She likes living in the house, which she said has helped her stay clean and on track.

“These kinds of programs allow people to form their lives,” she said. “These are your cousins, your family members, your neighbors.”

But because the state isn’t picking up the tab, Charlie’s family has been paying her rent at Hope House, and that source is drying up. Charlie is also searching daily for a job she hopes will allow her to stay in the house as she works to keep up with her programs.

“It’s disappointing and scary,” Charlie said of the uncertainty.

Hope House is the only STOP-funded sober living environment for women along the coast between Ventura and Santa Cruz counties.

A community effort

Though GEO Group says funding for Restorative Partners could be restored in the next budget cycle, the nonprofit is in immediate need of financial assistance to continue helping people like Charlie.

In response, the organization is hosting a first-of-its-kind Grilled Cheese Festival to raise money for its re-entry programs.

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The event will be held from noon to 4 p.m. June 1 at Laguna Lake Park and will feature different varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches, as well as teams from several local law enforcement agencies and community groups competing for the title of best grilled cheese sandwich. The competition will be judged by the event’s sponsors and KSBY-TV anchor Carina Corral.

The fundraiser will be emceed by San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell and feature beer and wine tasting, music by Joe Daddy & The Sumthins, a raffle and silent auction. Tickets are $60 (tax deductible) and available through the event’s website at slogrilledcheese.com.

Restorative Partners is also seeking sponsorships and volunteers for the event. More information can be found at events@restorativepartners.org.

Donations to the nonprofit can be made at restorativepartners.org.

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