William Akol crossed the desert at the age of 9 to escape the civil war in Sudan. He survived 10 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and later Kenya, where he finally received asylum from the United States.
Coming to America in 2000, however, was an odyssey that Akol, then 20, wasn't prepared for.
He got an apartment with his cousin and started working at various jobs -- painting, doing laundry -- but between the language barrier, finding himself in a strange culture, and suffering from post-traumatic stress, he fell into drinking, getting into fights and being arrested.
Eventually, his cousin kicked him out. For six months, Akol says, he wandered the streets, staying at shelters until he landed in jail for a year. When he was released, he got referred to a pilot program called Co-STAR that provided him with housing, alcohol treatment, a mental health program and personal support to deal with issues.
Today, at 28, the soft-spoken, clear-headed Akol is studying English and taking courses to get his GED at Seattle Central Community College. He one day hopes to go into accounting.
It's an amazing turnaround, says Stebon Eddy, the Co-STAR clinician who works with Akol. If the Seattle City Council passes Mayor Greg Nickels' 2009-2010 budget, however, Akol may be one of the last to go through the pilot program and two other programs like it.
Faced with a city budget deficit, Nickels is calling for reducing funding for Co-STAR -- Court Specialized Treatment and Access to Recovery Services -- and stopping it altogether in two years. As of Dec. 1, his budget also calls for ending the Central District's Get Off the Streets (GOTS) and Communities Uniting Rainier Beach (CURB -- originally called Clean Dreams).
The three pilot programs started in 2006 as part of a Civil Streets initiative proposed by Councilmember Nick Licata. The goal was to provide a more effective, more humane way of stopping drug-related street crime -- by identifying and offering immediate housing, treatment, and other services to users rather than just throwing them in jail again and again.
Co-STAR works to reduce jail bookings by following up on repeat offenders in the downtown area. Staff at the other two programs actively court individuals on the street who are homeless or involved in drugs or prostitution, with GOTS employing young adults who have themselves been on the streets. Together, the programs have enrolled 445 people since 2006, at a cost of $240,000 a year for the street outreach programs and roughly $500,000 a year for Co-STAR.
The mayor's Office of Policy Management released an analysis in October, however, saying the money isn't well spent. In a study of clients one year before and one year after enrollment, the study shows GOTS clients spent one less day in jail, while Co-STAR clients had four more jail days, with the number of jail bookings roughly the same -- figures that bested or were the same as a King County treatment program that the analysis used for comparison. (Clean Dreams was not evaluated because it closed in 2007 and reopened as CURB in February.)
The upshot is that "GOTS and Co-STAR did not appear to have an effect on recidivism," says Nickels spokesperson Zarin Zaugg Black.
"That's just not the case," says Co-STAR's Eddy, who checks the jail register every day for his clients' names. Besides Akol, who used to be in and out of jail all the time, "a lot of folks are now to the point where they have zero bookings," he says. "I think the recidivism rate has been significantly reduced."
So do staff at CURB. In an 18-month evaluation of 125 clients conducted at the University of Washington, "only 18 percent recidivated," study author Alexis Harris told the council at its Oct. 27 budget hearing. That compares, she said, to a 47 percent recidivism rate in the United States, 62 percent in Washington, and 59 percent in King County.
At $58,000 a year to incarcerate a person versus $8,500 to put them through CURB, Harris said, "the program is cost effective."
Councilmember Licata says the council has twice allocated funds for city staff to conduct a complete evaluation of the three pilots -- $100,000 last year and $60,000 this year, he says -- but the mayor has never done so. Black responds that, because the programs only started in 2006, "a meaningful evaluation was not possible in 2007."
To replace the funds to be cut, she says, the programs should look to the county, as it is responsible for mental health and substance abuse treatment and has $64 million in new funding through the Veterans and Human Services Levy and a new mental health sales tax.
Licata says that's typical of the mayor, who he says tends to red-line programs authored by the council in favor of his own -- in this case, his new $9 million Youth Violence Initiative. Licata, who is working to restore funding for the pilot programs, calls the mayor's office study cursory.
"It's my understanding they got an intern to do a very surface-level analysis that was asking the wrong questions and collecting the wrong data," Licata says. The mayor, he adds, "is basically robbing Peter to pay Paul, and Peter's already doing the job."
It's sad, says Kay Godefroy, director of the Seattle Neighborhood Group, the sponsoring organization for GOTS, because the life-saving work these programs do in housing and stabilizing hard-to-reach populations can't be measured in numbers, but in changed lives and new hope.
Like William Akol's. Co-STAR "allowed me to get into treatment, helped me find an apartment and helped me deal with mental issues," he says. "It saved my life."