Finding a Place to Fit Inn
downtown Eau Claire hotel caters to men exiting correctional system
Zack Forden, almost 26 years old, is planning on taking courses in horticulture and animal husbandry at the Chippewa Valley Technical College next semester. Someday, he’d like to own his own farm. It’s sort of in the family, he said: His parents own vineyards. But he’d prefer to work more with animals. He’s a fast talker – all this shared in a matter of seconds. For now, though, he’s in the market for a job so he can pay rent at the Inn Towne Hotel, a rooming house at 678 Wisconsin Ave.
“Housing is just a huge problem with reentry.” – Terry Butler, owner of the Inn Towne Hotel, on the challenges faced by those who leave prison
Rent is weekly: $105-$125 will get a man a room, utilities, garbage pick-up, and food. Dan and Nancy Robinson, the hotel’s previous owners, have been providing men a safe, supportive living environment since 2005; and a background check was never necessarily a dealbreaker. Earlier this year, Terry Butler, fresh from five years teaching at the Stanley Correctional Facility, purchased the building and took the helm.
“The men that came into my classroom as a student or tutor, most of them were really great guys,” Butler said. “Focused, funny, motivated, resourceful, making the best out of a pretty stressful situation. They wanted to get their lives turned around, get back to their families.” Upon retirement, she figured she had 20 good years left, and wanted to spend them doing something meaningful.
“Housing is just a huge problem with reentry,” Butler explained. She thought she might spend her time helping inmates reintegrate with their communities; when she found out that the Inn Towne Hotel was for sale, she started talking to the Robinsons and quickly sealed the deal.
“Right now it’s hard enough for an upstanding guy that’s got two jobs (to find a place to live),” Larry Patin, who manages the hotel for Butler, said. “But if you just got out of the slammer, and you’ve got two jobs. … You’re at the bottom of the list.” In his eight years at the hotel, he has seen many men come and go as well as the transition of ownership between the Robinsons and Butler.
“She’s very supportive of everybody that’s here, and likes to get involved with what’s going on with everybody,” Patin said of Butler. “What I like about her is that she’s willing to give guys chances.” Without that chance, he and Forden believe, making the transition from incarceration is harder to accomplish.
Recidivism – which is when a person who has served a sentence for an offense is convicted of another crime and reenters the corrections system – has been trending downward for decades. But as of 2014, 31.3 percent of people released from the Wisconsin correctional system re-offended within three years, according to a performance measurement report by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Men, who already make up about 90 percent of the state prison population, have a higher rate of recidivism by about five percentage points, according to the same study, with 31.7 percent of formerly incarcerated men reentering the system within three years.
Of recidivists, 25 percent have reentered the correctional system within the first 4½ months of release, and 50 percent will receive convictions for an offence within a year.
Butler uses her connections with the Wisconsin correctional system to find good candidates for residency at the hotel, giving them a helping hand in successfully rejoining their community after incarceration or treatment court.
“She’s very supportive of everybody that’s here, and likes to get involved with what’s going on with everybody. What I like about her is that she’s willing to give guys chances.” – Larry Patin, manager of the Inn Towne Hotel, on owner Terry Butler
There is no formal application process. Butler meets with potential residents and talks to them about their lives and plans. “If I’ve got a man with a plan, just the smallest plan, and I’ve got a room … that’s what I need,” she said. Many of the residents spend their days working, attending classes and meetings, and trying to reconnect with their families.
“They have these other connections that they’re reaching for, so (the hotel) isn’t the end game,” she said. The average stay at the Inn Towne Hotel is 12-18 months, Butler said. Residents use the time to save money, train or go to school, make connections, and eventually move into a more permanent living situation.
Forden is one of the most recent additions to the Inn Towne household. He shared his appreciation for the hotel – “there should be more places like this” – one second and his love for Eau Claire the next. “There’s all sorts of stuff to do all the time, there’s all sorts of classes to do in my down time – it’s beautiful,” he said. He attends the Wednesday night suppers Butler prepares for the households to get to know his housemates and talk about their lives, an exercise he finds helpful.
Jeff Moyer – who, like Patin, has lived at the hotel for eight years – is disappointed to miss most of those meals. He works second shift at a manufacturing plant as a machine operator, a conflict with the household meetings. Along with Patin, he has watched many men move through the hotel.
“You’d like to see everybody who comes through these doors be a success story, but in reality, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way,” he said.
“Everybody has the capacity to make a transition in life,” he said, but they have to want it pretty bad. You have to have a thick skin when things don’t work out, he added.
Butler runs the hotel without grants or government money. “These guys make everything work by paying their rent,” she said. “Nobody’s getting rich, but everything gets taken care of.” All of the residents pitch in by cooking, cleaning, and helping with necessary maintenance and repairs.
As she moves forward at the hotel, Butler is always looking for ways to improve the residence and provide more support to the people who live there. She is exploring adding solar power to the roof, adding Wi-Fi, and pursuing opportunities for collaboration within the community. One of the first things she did was hire a peer support specialist to help connect tenants with health care, employment, and counseling resources.
“It is an experiment …” Butler said. “I want to collectively seek solutions with these guys.” She says that above all, she is curious: How can people who need to reenter the community do so successfully?
“You can’t make someone get help,” Patin said. “You can only hope they ask. And she makes it well known that all you have to do is ask.”