FRAMINGHAM -- Social service agency SMOC is in line to win a four-year renewal of its state contract to find housing for ex-convicts, an arrangement that has come under heated criticism locally.

The Framingham agency is the only bidder for the Department of Correction's contract, which will be awarded sometime this month and take effect July 1, said department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin.

The contract, first reported on by The Daily News in December, is intended to provide housing for inmates who risk becoming homeless upon their release from prison.  SMOC has had the contract for the last three years and had served 764 people as of April 30.

SMOC Planning Director Jerry Desilets declined comment yesterday about the new contract, which is worth $1.35 million over four years, saying parts of it could be negotiated.

"Once it's signed, we'd be happy to talk about the contract," Desilets said.  "It might be identical, but it could change."

According to Wiffin, the Department of Correction has made some changes to the original contract.  Instead of providing housing services to ex-convicts for six months following their release, SMOC will be required to work with people for up to a year.

"Our intention is to strengthen accountability," Wiffin said.

Critics have complained the contract is funneling criminals to communities like Framingham.  They point to SMOC's contract proposal in which the agency touts it ability to find housing for hard-to-place offenders like arsonists and sex offenders.

But officials at SMOC and the Department of Correction say people are being placed across the state, mostly in major cities, with a handful going to Framingham.  Of the 764 referrals, according to the department, 107 were sex offenders.

"These offenders are returning to the community whether they use SMOC or not," Wiffin said.  "The DOC has no authority to tell offenders where (to live) upon their release."

According to figures provided by the department, SMOC has helped five people find housing in Framingham, three of whom had Framingham addresses before they were incarcerated.

The Daily News asked for a breakdown of where everyone found housing, but Wiffin said the paper would have to submit a written request under the state's Public Records Law to obtain those numbers.

Peter Adams, a member of Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, said even if referrals are not finding housing in Framingham, they could be taking advantage of other SMOC services locally.

"The fact they've been initially placed in one place is really kind of meaningless," he said.

Adams also questioned why SMOC is the only bidder for the contract, which he said does not provide enough accountability.  SMOC, he argued, should have to prove where referrals are finding housing.

"What concerns me is that it's impossible to obtain any accurate, detailed statistics based on the nature of the transaction -- the outsourcing to a private company that's not accountable to the general public they way the Department of Correction supposedly is," he said.

But SMOC and the Department of Correction countered the social service agency is accountable to the state and must provide monthly reports on its work with referrals.

Wiffin acknowledged only one bid for a Department of Correction contract is unusual, but that in this case, "it speaks to the level of specialty it takes to service people statewide."

SMOC nears 4-year deal for placing ex-convicts Friday, June 2, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News

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