SMOC has deal to place ex-cons: Only a few people served under pact with DOC have been placed in Framingham Saturday, December 31, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Social service agency SMOC has been helping ex-convicts for more than two years find housing as part of a Department of Correction contract, which it won after touting its ability to work with dangerous criminals like arsonists and sex offenders.

The contract, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News, has come under fire for drawing former criminals to Framingham by providing housing and other services to them.  SMOC is headquartered in Framingham and owns the bulk of its housing here.

"I think this exposes the fact that there is an underlying plan, a document... for designating Framingham as a place that would be suitable for centering a large population of arsonists, sex offenders and criminals," said Selectman Ginger Esty.

Numbers provided by the state and SMOC, however, do not indicate the town has become a haven for those who participate in the re-entry program.  Since it began in 2003, only two people have been placed in Framingham out of more than 500 referrals, according SMOC.  The Department of Correction put the number at three.

"Framingham is not being inundated with inmates," said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the department.

Despite those figures, Police Chief Steven Carl said he is concerned about the contract, which he learned about several weeks ago.  Carl said the problem is the cumulative result of local social service programs creating "a group of individuals that raise eyebrows and cause concern for other people living in the community.

"A handful from the prisons, a big handful from other shelters and services coming into Framingham to our shelter, a handful from a variety of other programs -- a handful ends up being a bucketful pretty quick," he said. 

Indeed, a police survey presented to selectmen in November found that at least half of those staying at the wet shelter downtown were from outside the Framingham area.  About half the guests who provided reliable information also had extensive criminal records, what Carl described yesterday as "historic criminal lifestyles."

And in its original bid for the Department of Correction contract two years ago, SMOC goes into detail about its history of working with people with extensive criminal records.  In its bid proposal, the agency notes that it has the capacity and experience to provide statewide housing services to "serious, violent offenders."

"Invariably, one finds throughout our continuum the presence of offenders using SMOC services and resources," the document states.  "We know for a fact that offenders make up a solid percentage of the individuals we serve.  In some programs they are the target population while in others the number is quite high."

The re-entry program is aimed at male inmates across the state whom the Department of Correction identifies as being a high risk for homelessness upon their release from prison.  The contract, set to run out in June 2006, is worth $891,000 over the 3-year period.

SMOC works with the inmates for six months after their release, ensuring they have stable housing and employment, said Planning Director Gerard Desilets.  It also works to connect them to other services they may need like substance-abuse or mental health counseling, services that SMOC also offers to its clients.

Of about 500 referrals to the agency since the contract began, SMOC is handling about 220 active cases.  Most of the inmates return to the areas where they are from, Desilets said, with the bulk ending up in Boston and Springfield.

"Their fears and concerns about this contract being a conduit for the corrections system into the town of Framingham is an alarmist and uneducated response," he said.

The re-entry program, according to the DOC, is made up of six regions across the state: Boston, Worcester, Lowell, Springfield, Fall River and Framingham.  When asked how many ex-convicts have found housing in communities around Framingham, Desilets said the number would "probably be very few if any."

In its bid proposal, SMOC highlights some of the "effective strategies" it has developed to help ex-offenders find housing.  If an offender can relate his criminal history "however extensive" to substance abuse, a landlord cannot deny him access to housing, according to the proposal.  Substance abuse is considered a legal disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"SMOC Housing Specialists have also developed creative housing search techniques to address high-risk, difficult to place offender subgroups, for example arsonists and sex offenders," the document states.  "Housing Specialists were forced to develop these techniques for these specific subgroups when the ADA and advocacy were either unsuccessful or not pertinent to the offender’s case."

Peter Adams, a member of the neighborhood group Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, which is fighting a SMOC project on Winter Street, criticized the "secretive" way the contract was awarded that prevented the public from commenting about it.

"What concerns me is not that the ex-cons are getting help.  They need help, and they’re more likely to re-offend if they don’t get help," he said.  "What bothers me is the fact that again until I see the numbers I’m going to believe that Framingham is going to be the hub of this region and receive a disproportionate share of the offenders."

Wiffin, the DOC spokeswoman, said all the regulations pertaining to procurement and public advertising were adhered to.

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