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Closure of D.C.’s Only Men’s Halfway House Leaves Residents Scrambling For A Safe Place To Live

The Bureau of Prisons could send those without homes to alternative halfway houses far from D.C. or back to prison at the end of the month.

Hope Village, the last halfway house for men in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Jenny Gathright / WAMU)

Stacy Gonzales doesn’t know where he’ll be living next week. 

For roughly 10 months, he was in federal prison in Houston for violating supervised release on a drug conspiracy conviction. Since Feb. 12, he has been a resident of Hope Village, which is Washington, D.C.’s only halfway house for men. He had planned to finish his sentence there and then move to Virginia, where friends would help him find a job in plumbing. 

But in mid-April, Gonzales and the rest of the men in Hope Village found out that the facility will not be renewing its contract with the Bureau of Prisons, and will be closing at the end of the month. Residents who can provide an address will be released to home confinement. 

But Gonzales is homeless. He told The Appeal that he’s still waiting to hear from the BOP on whether he’ll be moved to another halfway house or sent back to prison. 

“I just don’t want to have that happen. I don’t see why they should do that since I already got out here, trying to rehabilitate myself out here,” he said. “I’m trying to get closer to Virginia, not away from Virginia, because I know I’ve got a job and if I were there, I could get it.”

Gonzales, 43, said that without a safe place to reside, he fears he will contract COVID-19 and potentially spread it to those he comes in contact with wherever he ends up. 

Hope Village, the largest federally contracted halfway house in the country with 304 beds, has long been the subject of scrutiny. Advocacy groups have called for its closure over unsafe accommodations and inadequate re-entry services. Recently, those calls took on heightened urgency when two men died within two days of each other inside the facility, and a federal lawsuit accused it of failing to protect residents during the global health emergency. 

Although residents and local advocates say they’re not sorry to see Hope Village close, they are concerned about the decision to force residents out in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the men will have to scramble to find housing approved by the BOP or risk going back to prison, where they would most likely be locked down in quarantine.

“We were upset to learn that Hope Village decided to effectively displace these men during a pandemic with only three weeks’ notice, furthering its pattern of not putting the needs of its residents first,” Misty Thomas, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, told The Appeal in an email. “This action does not support Hope Village’s claim to care about the returning citizens they are purportedly serving.”

As of Wednesday, there were 129 men still living at Hope Village awaiting release to home confinement or a transfer to another facility, according to the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The D.C. Corrections Information Council, an independent monitoring agency, estimates that 40 people at Hope Village do not have housing and will be sent back to a BOP facility if they can’t find accomodations. 

Neither the city nor the BOP has made any plans to create beds or housing for residents who do not have approved home confinement plans, according to the Council for Court Excellence, which has been advocating for the closure.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment. 

CORE DC, a nonprofit organization, has secured a contract to open D.C.’s next halfway house, but the group’s plans have been delayed because it has been unable to find a location. The next facility is unlikely to open for at least several months. 

“To not have a halfway house in D.C. is saying loud and clear, we don’t care about you enough to have you home where you belong,” said Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which works with Hope Village residents. “How can someone reintegrate successfully in a city that they are not going to live in? It’s outrageous and irresponsible.”

For some Hope Village residents like Demetrius Beatty, the news that D.C. will no longer have a halfway house was welcome. Beatty said he was excited to find out he would be released to home confinement early and plans to go live with his younger sister in Hyattsville, Maryland. 

“That’s what I really want to do. I really want to go home,” the 34-year-old said. “I kind of feel bad for the guys who are incarcerated right now and can’t have this opportunity to attend the halfway house because there’s not one available.” 

But the situation also leaves others like Gonzales in a precarious position. Gonzales said he is hoping for a transfer to a different halfway house, preferably one in Virginia. He fears returning to prison at a time when going to federal prison could be a death sentence

“It ain’t fair,” he said. “You’ve got to avoid new places and avoid people and stuff like that. If you go [to prison] and they got [coronavirus] there, you’ve got to be there because they say you’ve got to be there.”

Hope Village opened in Southeast D.C. in 1978 and has won more than $125 million in federal contracts since 2006. In recent years, the facility has been involved in a protracted dispute over the federal contract for a men’s halfway house in the District. As it appeared that its days were numbered, the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the facility’s issues. 

The BOP says that neither resident who died in early April had COVID-19, but residents told The Appeal they dispute that claim. Johnathan Ross, a 56 year-old resident, said he lived next door to one of the men who died and directly above the other. The one below him had been in quarantine before his death, he said, and the staff had been bringing meals to his room. 

A few days after the deaths, House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. said she was informed that Hope Village “unexpectedly” told the BOP that it would not be housing individuals returning from federal prison after April 30. 

In the meantime, Hope Village has been on lockdown because of the virus. Men are only allowed to leave their cramped living quarters to eat meals in the dining hall, where they are forced to sit close to one another. “The living conditions are terrible,” Ross said. “We’re like eight-deep in a two-bedroom apartment.”

Residents told The Appeal the facility has not provided them with masks or hand sanitizer and they have been forced to find supplies on their own. “I literally had to get a mask from someone outside the facility when I went to a doctor’s appointment,” Ross said. 

As The Appeal reported last month, the BOP released a memo on March 13 detailing changes to halfway houses in light of the crisis, including the suspension of drug and alcohol testing, but its plans to allow home confinement for federal prisoners did not specify if residents of halfway houses were included. Weeks later, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) wrote to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, calling on him to ease the burden on halfway houses by releasing people to home confinement.

“These guys are in a Petri dish, they’re jammed together they can’t leave,” Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, told The Appeal last month. “Halfway houses should be emptied immediately. There’s no public safety benefit compared to the public health benefit of keeping people in. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s mind numbing.”

Kenneth McManus has lived in Hope Village since January and had roughly a month and a half of his time left when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. McManus said he asked last month to be released to home confinement. He described hearing coughing and people throwing up throughout his building and began to fear for his health. 

“I keep hand sanitizer, I wipe door knobs, I do everything I can to survive,” the 35-year-old said.  

Despite his pleas for an early release, the BOP ignored his request. 

“With a crisis like this, as soon as they see numbers rising, let us go,” he said. “I just think we’re all labeled as statistics, criminals. Everybody’s not a criminal. You’ve got people in here for simple traffic tickets, for not paying child support, stuff like that.”

“I just think it’s pitiful,” he added. “It’s awful. It shows the neglect for certain types of Americans.” 

In a video posted on Facebook, another resident said he sees six to eight people a day leaving Hope Village in ambulances. The resident said he hopes the BOP can put everyone on GPS monitors so they can be sent home. 

Ross is scheduled to be released Friday and plans to live with his 81-year-old mother. He said he also asked for an early release but was ignored.

“I went to everybody I thought could make it possible,” including BOP officials, he said. “I got frustrated and got into verbal arguments with the staff. I came to conclude that my last two weeks of being here, I was just going to end up doing my duration.”

The proposed class action lawsuit that two residents filed against Hope Village and the Bureau of Prisons on April 2 claims the facility failed to provide testing and medical attention to people with COVID-19. It also claims that the staff requires residents to clean the facility themselves but do not provide adequate cleaning materials, and that the BOP should be releasing the residents, who are eligible for home confinement, as a response to the public health crisis. 

Until it became clear the contract would be ending, however, the BOP did not respond to the calls to let everyone out on home confinement. 

“These are all people who are six months from release, so there shouldn’t be any reason other than they have nowhere to go that you’re not releasing them,” said Emily Tatro, deputy director of the Council for Court Excellence. “They’re getting out in a couple months anyway. What’s the difference?”

Instead, the BOP has put residents in a situation where they fear for their health and safety every day, advocates say. 

“I don’t want to die and I don’t want innocent people to die,” McManus said. “They’re neglecting their responsibilities to keep people safe in here.”