by Pia K. Hansen

A name like the Sunset Inn conjures images of rolling hills, blushing skies, stellar views and cowboy tunes. That isn't quite the scenario at Spokane's Sunset Inn, a motel located on Sunset Boulevard roughly halfway between downtown and the airport. The '70s-style motel is nestled close to a railway overpass and near the interstate. It has seen better days. But that doesn't mean its life is over: once-empty rooms are quickly filling up as the motel springs back to life as a halfway house for recovering drug and alcohol users.

George Nossek says he made plans to purchase the old hotel on Christmas Day last year, and that now he wants to turn it into a therapeutic community called Christmas House.

"I had investigated halfway houses from my home in Colorado Springs. I'm not a counselor or anything like that, but I did spend five years volunteering with the Seven Step Program in Arizona," explains Nossek about his background. Seven Step is a rehabilitation program run inside prison walls, aiming to get inmates back on track.

On a visit to Spokane last year, Nossek ran into Randy Heinemann, who works part time at Sun Ray Court, a halfway house located downtown.

"Anyone can start a halfway house, but to be successful you need someone who's deeply involved with the industry," Nossek explains.

Industry? What industry?

"You know, the industry of the homeless, alcoholics and the addicted, people with self-defeating behaviors. That's where Randy [Heinemann] comes in," Nossek explains.

Heinemann says the two will build a therapeutic community where recovering drug users and alcoholics can get help to get back on their feet.

"We already have 20 clients living here," says Heinemann. "The goal is to be sober and clean and be an active participant in society."

We meet in the small living room of what looks like it used to be the motel caretaker's house. Judging from the smell, someone just made fish sticks in the adjourning kitchen, and residents casually walk through as we all talk. Nossek is clearly uneasy about our conversation.

"It's so easy to give these places bad press," he says, "we don't want that. The people who stay here already went through a treatment program somewhere else in the city. This is transitional for them. It's a safe and clean and sober environment. There's no drug dealing or anything like that going on here now."

The motel that was located immediately in front of the Sunset Inn, and which has now been torn down, was associated with the drug trade. Residents in the trailer park behind the Sunset Inn have had big problems with drug dealing as well.

Opening a halfway house without informing neighbors, however, brings problems of its own. A resident nearby says she worries about who's moving into the motel and what problems and potential crimes the new neighbors may bring with them.

Nossek and Heinemann both confirm they haven't informed neighboring businesses and residents, other than through casual conversations. That goes for the few remaining residents in the trailer park located on the motel's property as well.

And amazingly enough, there's nothing wrong with that. All they had to do was change the licensing on the property from hotel/motel to health and allied services. City records show that they did just that on Feb. 24.

"We used to do halfway houses by special permit, but state law has changed," says city planner Steve Haynes. "If this is a situation where residents are not under house arrest, they can locate in any neighborhood or location they prefer."

Even in areas of single-family homes?

"Yeah, pretty much," says Haynes. "We can't regulate what defines a family, even if it's up to 20-40 people. I don't know where we would draw the line or if we even would." He adds that for sex offenders there are other requirements, mainly that they have to register with police.

"To the best of my knowledge, the city has not been approached about the location of a halfway house for sex offenders," Haynes says.

Anyone Can Do It

The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) is the primary source of clients for halfway houses, but it's a misconception that DOC actually operates the facilities.

"We contract most of our halfway houses with individuals who are private citizens and have chosen to be entrepreneurs within this field," says Veltry Johnson, a DOC press officer. "Yes, ma'am, you can start a halfway house yourself if you want to. You have to have a secure facility and all that, and we will of course come out and look at it to make sure it meets certain standards. But pretty much anyone [who meets DOC criteria] can start a halfway house."

Nossek's background is in insurance sales and the security business. Heinemann currently works at a halfway house, but he says the two plan to rely on volunteer counselors and therapists to help clients.

"We don't do any counseling. We are not a medical facility. People who stay here already went through a treatment program somewhere else," says Nossek.

Residents still have to fill out an application.

"We are one of the places they actually can be released to," says Heinemann. "They fill out a one-page application with their employment history and that sort of thing on it. You can't be a Level III sex offender and live here."

What about levels I and II?

"Well, we are not doing background screenings like that," says Heinemann. "It's not like in other rental places. Most of our clients would come up as 'not rentable to' because of their history with drugs or alcohol."

Dollars and Cents

Residents at halfway houses pay rent as part of the rehabilitation process they are going through. Just as they have to have a job -- and hopefully stay with it -- they have to get used to paying their bills.

At the Christmas House, there are 15 two-man units, which go for $250 a month per person. There are also six units large enough for two people to live in, with kitchens and baths; those go for $450 if one person is living there or $275 per person if two people share. Finally, there are five shelter-plus-care units that go for $300 a month.

Shelter Plus Care (S+C) is a HUD-funded program aimed at getting people with severe mental illness, AIDS or chronic substance abuse problems off the street an into permanent housing.

At a presentation before the City Council two weeks ago, Gavin Cooley, the city's chief financial director, said that the city is receiving the first installments of this year's HUD grant right around this time.

"This is a renewal of a grant we already have, and we expect to receive close to $2 million over the next couple of weeks," said Cooley. The city has gotten the grant every year since '96.

Nossek wants part of that grant to pay for the S+C units at Christmas House. There's just one problem: according to the city's human services office, Christmas House -- or Ascenda as the organization is also called -- has not applied for HUD funding for this year. That means that even if Nossek and Heinemann do qualify, they won't receive a dime until next year.

"We will apply to HUD and do a partnership in a loose sense, if you will," he explains. "If you build 60 new units, like condos, you can sell 20 at market value, have another 20 be government-assisted, and the final 20 be for your recovery clients."

In the future, Nossek would like to build new units and have them inhabited with a mix of "ordinary" people and professionals as well as recovering addicts. This is a "re-neighboring" model that has been introduced very successfully in Atlanta, where Robert Lupton has successfully developed large areas of downtown. Lupton was just in Spokane, doing a presentation about his developments.

But can something like that really be done on the Sunset Hill in Spokane?

"Yes," says Nossek, "it can. So far, all the professionals I have talked to have agreed to live here."

So Far, So Good

The Homeless Coalition -- which is part of Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP) -- is usually in charge of finding shelter for the homeless or hard-to-house people. Bob Peeler, who's the homeless coordinator for SNAP, says there are more regulations with halfway houses than it appears. The facilities require a lot of hard work as well.

"If there's government money involved, we are being monitored by the funding entity -- the state, the city or the county," Peeler says. "Most of the halfway houses and shelters follow HQS -- housing quality standard -- which provides basic guidance. SNAP has an inspector who's authorized, and we have units inspected when families move in and out."

Peeler says some halfway houses, like the Oxford Houses (of which there are several in Spokane), are privately funded.

"Residents pay part of the rent themselves and they are self-governed. They've been very successful," says Peeler.

Governance is a big issue when you're dealing with recovering addicts and people who have otherwise been in trouble with the law. Having good supervision at all times is key to running a successful operation where no one gets hurt.

"It's really hard when you are starting out," Peeler adds. "You have to have very clear policies and procedures for residents."

Background checks and whom to reject are always big issues.

"You know, we're social workers -- we lead with our hearts. We are not detectives," says Peeler. "If you've been on the street for a long time, you learn to manipulate systems to get your needs met."

But the bottom line is that halfway houses are badly needed.

"Those people on the Sunset Hill are good people. They are absolutely trying to do the right thing," says Peeler. "But you have to be careful taking in a lot of clients or residents with special needs. God forbid something happens, but there are liability issues, the volunteer staff easily gets burned out -- bad things can happen."

Publication date: 04/22/04

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