In its first year, this Johnson County program has helped 280 people with criminal histories find a safe place to sleep

Johnson County's new Problem Solving Beds program helps folks with criminal histories, including Christina Brewer (above), get back on their feet, especially if they're experiencing homelessness. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Affordable housing remains an issue for many in Johnson County, but for a particular segment of the population, it’s an especially urgent concern.

A program started just more than a year ago so far has helped provide dozens of formerly incarcerated people with a safe place to sleep as they search for more permanent housing solutions.

Managed by the Johnson County Department of Corrections, the Problem Solving Beds program offers a place for those who have been in the criminal justice system a place to sleep, store their belongings and access a variety of resources, including meals, transportation, medical care, case management, job placement, financial resources and even creative arts programs.

Key Takeaways

• The program helps those people who have been touched by the criminal justice system and are experiencing homelessness.

• Since December 2020, Problem Solving Beds has served more than 280 clients with criminal histories.

• Two clients who talked to the Post said the program and staff helped them get back on their feet.

• The program is not meant for people without criminal histories, so folks with mental health issues and others experiencing homelessness are still slipping through the cracks.

The men’s sleeping quarters in the Problem Solving Beds program are in this building on the Johnson County Department of Corrections campus. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

The voluntary program utilizes housing on the corrections facility campus in New Century (near Gardner), by the New Century Aircenter.

Angela Paz, deputy director of the adult residential center at the Johnson County Department of Corrections, said the county launched the program in late 2020 to meet the needs of former inmates experiencing homelessness.

“The intent was if somebody who is on probation or parole is homeless, their likelihood to create crime goes up,” Paz said. “So if we can address the homelessness issue, then hopefully we’re kind of reducing their risk and keeping them from dovetailing in a negative way and not completing their probation or parole requirements.”

The women’s sleeping quarters in the Problem Solving Beds program are in this building on the Johnson County Department of Corrections campus. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Since launching more than a year ago, the Problem Solving Beds program has served more than 280 clients.

Up to 24 clients can stay in the program for as long as 60 days, during which time they can seek other transitional housing options.

According to county corrections officials, of the roughly 280 clients served thus far:

  • more than 140 have successfully completed the program, meaning they found housing arrangements and didn’t break program rules;
  • about 20 have been unsuccessfully released, meaning they were asked to leave or had disciplinary issues;
  • and slightly fewer than 60 clients voluntarily left the program.

Clients typically stay an average of 21 days.

‘A blessing and a great opportunity’

“I met a lot of great people, contacts that I’m going to keep in touch with for the rest of my life,” said Sterling Oleson of Lenexa (right) who visits with other clients in the program in the common area.

Some clients shared their positive experiences with the program.

“Living here has been a blessing and a great opportunity,” said Sterling Oleson of Lenexa, noting the free meals and lodging offer some relief for him while he gets back on his feet. “I met a lot of great people, contacts that I’m going to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.”

Another client, Christina Brewer of Kansas City, Missouri, was arrested for violating her probation in January in Jackson County. At the time, she was still sick from a longtime addiction to methamphetamine and heroin.

After withdrawal, she said the fog lifted and she felt empowered enough to take control of her life, starting at the Johnson County Adult Residential Detention Center and later, in the Problem Solving Beds program next door.

Kendra Harrison (left), a correctional adviser in the program, visits with client Christina Brewer in one of the common rooms of the women’s facility. Artwork displayed on the wall depicts the creative expression of clients as they go through the program. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

“It was terrible, but at the end of the day, thank God for Johnson County,” Brewer said. “Because even though it was a warrant I had ran from for a while, it was something I knew I had to deal with. I just was terrified because I didn’t want to go through withdrawal and I didn’t want to be sick. But between me and God, we knew that that was the only thing that was going to stop it.”

With help from the center and the Problem Solving beds program, she earned a job at DEMDACO, an online business selling handmade crafts. These days, she makes the kinds of angels she remembers having on her mantle before her house burned down.

She’s now preparing for transitional housing. At the time of the interview in late February, Brewer was 41 days sober.

“I’ll tell you, it’s an amazing feeling,” she added. “I owe everything to the center. This program saves people’s lives. These people care. They go above and beyond. You can find 20 million people who will say something bad about the center, but life is 99% perspective, and if you don’t realize you’re blessed… if you use it as an opportunity and use the resources that are here, it’ll change your whole life.”

Besides those who lack housing options, clients with domestic violence charges and those from out of state who get arrested here can utilize this program as an emergency backup while they figure out their next steps for housing.

Police can also drop off those who are trespassing somewhere after dark — for instance, someone sleeping in a park with no place else to go — without writing a citation. Paz, the center’s deputy director, said the program has helped about five people in this way.

What’s next for the program

“I owe everything to the center. This program saves people’s lives. These people care. They go above and beyond,” said Christina Brewer, pictured above in her room in the women’s facility.

Problem Solving Beds has some limitations and challenges.

For instance, folks with no criminal history, but who could be at risk of homelessness and have mental health issues, are prohibited from entering the program.

Paz said limiting the program protects those who would otherwise have no involvement in the justice system from having unnecessary and potentially harmful contact with folks who do have a criminal history. Nonetheless, the department gets lots of inquiries about folks who have mental health issues but no criminal history, she added.

“If they have some form of justice involvement, I’m happy to work with them,” Paz said. “If they do not, I have to politely say no, as much as it hurts.”

Paz said corrections staff members have learned a lot through the program, but they still need to address some issues such as challenges with capacity.

“I believe if we had the ability to offer more beds, we probably could fill more beds,” she said.

Additionally, corrections staff members are looking for ways to expand the program, such as identifying and tapping into local housing resources and fostering relationships with “felon-friendly” landlords who are willing to work with their clients.

Unfortunately, the list of these types of landlords is “pretty darn short,” Paz added.