For the more than 600,000 people who exit the system every year, coming home to family and community is the first important step into a new life. Currently this process does not work well for anyone, so we need to find a way for every person coming home to have a safe place to live and a good job that provides a livable wage. There are many facets to this challenge, and Impact Justice is tackling them with answers rooted in the new economy.
We know the single most significant factor in reducing recidivism is housing, and the greatest challenge of prison re-entry housing is that an individual’s success depends getting secure housing during their first 90 days after release. That’s why Impact Justice’s Homecoming Project is working to harness the sharing economy to find available homes for people exiting prison.
A roof overhead is important, but finding a job is the way to sustain life back in the community.
A roof overhead is important, but finding a job is the way to sustain life back in the community. But we also know that for many, a prison sentence ultimately becomes a life sentence of under or unemployment. Many laws and other regulations formally or informally bar individuals with criminal records from entering many segments of the workforce. And millions of resumes are tossed aside when an applicant’s past criminal history is revealed through self-reporting or background checks.
There’s a better path both for formerly incarcerated people and employers. One study in Florida found helping inmates receive a vocational certificate reduced recidivism by 17 percent. And existing evidence about the job performance of formerly incarcerated people is encouraging. The data firm Evolv found people convicted of a crime were slightly more productive than those with no criminal record at all. In addition, businesses that hire people with criminal records note their loyalty and drive to do better. Working in partnership with R Street, Impact Justice is educating the business community about the social and economic benefits of employing formerly incarcerated people.
WHAT WE’RE DOING
Enhancing Prospects for a Successful Re-Entry
Housing for Formerly Incarcerated People
Impact Justice’s Homecoming Project uses the sharing economy model to match up people leaving the system with those offering housing. Focused in Alameda County, California, we identify and match community hosts with participants, assess participants’ needs, and provide access to wraparound services to facilitate their health, well-being, and stability.
Eliminating Barriers to Employment
Impact Justice partnered with R Street to shift the narrative about employing formerly incarcerated people through advocacy, communications, and policy efforts. We’re educating the business community to lower barriers to employment upon re-entry.
Evaluating New Solutions
The Research & Action Center evaluates innovative programs providing customized re-entry services, tailored to meet the needs of young adults, ages 18 to 25. Through a collaborative effort with Contra Costa County, California, this work aims to bolster the success of young people heavily impacted by the justice system.
In 2018, I began working at Impact Justice, a national organization that focuses on criminal justice reform. I knew that my lived experiences, coupled with my education and professional skills, could contribute to building out a program called the Homecoming Project, an approach to addressing the housing needs of returning citizens that adds the missing element of community integration many housing programs lack. The program, which began more than a year ago in Oakland, California, is specifically geared for those who have served or been sentenced to 10 or more years in state or federal prison.
As part of the program, people coming home from prison are matched with a community host and live at their home for six months to optimize their stability post-release. Determining a match consists of screening participants and hosts, then sharing a participant’s application with hosts, and arranging a meeting. We undertake a thorough process to pair hosts and participants who are compatible in terms of living preferences—early birds versus night owls, smokers and not, those who love to cook, women who are only comfortable hosting other women, the role of faith in a person’s life, etc. Both parties have to agree to the match. That careful process builds trust from the beginning.
Impact Justice pays the host a daily stipend of $25 a day to house the participant. Hosts also receive an up-front payment of $250 to cover any expenses associated with preparing the participant’s room and normal wear and tear on their home.
Program participants are assigned to a community navigator, an Impact Justice employee who conducts a needs assessment and co-develops the participant’s individual reentry plan. This plan outlines a participant’s personal goals, along with tasks that directly support their reentry process, like attending job fairs, securing long-term housing, and budgeting.
Hosts are provided with professional training workshops every 45 days to educate them about the reentry population and parole conditions.
To date, the Homecoming Project has placed almost 15 participants into community-hosted homes throughout Alameda County in California. Six participants have completed their six months with the Homecoming Project, and three others have moved into their own apartments. Another three are opting to continue living with their host on their own mutually agreed-upon terms. The Homecoming Project is on track to place 25 participants into community-hosted homes by the end of 2019. The goal over the next two years is to place twice as many people annually in Alameda County, expand to neighboring Contra Costa County, and launch the project in at least one other large California county.
One participant in particular, Lynnette, is a charismatic woman who was matched with her host in December 2018. I remember her voice quivering when she contacted me and requested an application to participate. Her fear of being homeless was palpable and I remember seeing more in her eye than sheer desperation. This was a young woman who didn’t want to disappoint anyone, much less herself. I could see hopefulness in her smile when I tried to lighten the discussion around a very heavy topic: where would she lay her head in a month’s time?
She filled out an application, qualified, matched with the first host she met, and committed to a six-month-long housing arrangement. Lynette is a prime example of why this program is so effective and much needed. She served a 14-year sentence and was released to a halfway house that limited her freedom to navigate the community and properly re-establish herself. (Most probationers and parole officers prefer to place people in reentry programs, or sober living and halfway houses.) At the threat of being kicked out of the house because state and federal funding for the program was cut, she was terrified of her next steps. Even her parole agent had little to no resources to offer. Lynette was at great risk for becoming homeless.
Aside from the barriers that an individual with a criminal record must break through, the truth is that anyone starting over will have a bundle of burdens to lift and carry through these obstacles. Lynette was no exception to this rule.
One week after Lynette was placed with her host in the Homecoming Project, she secured employment as a policy fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Since then she has been filmed in a documentary series, featured on the local news station KPIX, and serves as a radio host for KPOO 89.5. The moment Lynette’s debilitating fear of housing was addressed, she was able to reach her full potential in re-establishing herself. “Being in the program saved me,” she says.
“Everyone Died While I Was Inside”
Another participant who was recently placed with a host was too embarrassed to ask for housing, hesitated to fill out an application, and was reluctant to reveal that he was homeless. After serving 30-plus years in prison, Eddie had a lot to prove to society. He secured employment in the culinary field but lost his housing source because there wasn’t enough state or federal funding available for him to attend the program. He spent many nights sleeping on the streets of Oakland, getting up early in the morning, and heading to his fitness center (where he had a membership) to shower before taking the BART into San Francisco to work.
Situations like his are common. Not being able to get ahead of the economic curve into self-sustainability was a cost he had to pay each night as he sought a different area that would be safe enough to close his eyes and sleep. Eddie doesn’t have a drug or alcohol problem, and has no family support. “Everyone died while I was inside,” he says. His spirit lives on, out in a world that has dramatically changed, and he has to work extra hard to keep up. The Homecoming Project’s housing model was ideal for his needs and situation.
We connected Eddie to resources and services that will help him stabilize emotionally, reset his mindset from survival mode to living his life somewhat normally, and find financial breathing room so he could finally exhale. When you start from the bottom, it’s a beautiful feeling when others provide you with a ladder to help you climb up. The pace of transitioning is different for everyone, so we place great emphasis on allowing participants the ability to find their own rhythm and readjust to freedom. For instance, each participant is actively moving toward achieving specific goals, like securing identification and other documents. While we do set targeted time goals, we adjust how we support their timelines because some participants move faster and others may have more of a learning curve to work with.
The Homecoming Project was originally focused on providing housing for a vulnerable population, and building a sustainable, community-based model for reentry. What we didn’t expect was the extent to which hosts would act as mentors and examples to their participants. Living together with members of their community provides participants with an organic demonstration of what leading a productive and healthy life truly looks like. We found that hosts were inadvertently teaching life skills to participants, acting as role models just by going about their daily lives.
Additionally, we’ve seen a shift in the narrative of what challenges formerly incarcerated individuals face when coming home, coupled with more spaces opening up to have these conversations. We’re seeing other individuals who have successfully transitioned back into society stand up and make clear statements about the need to tear down unnecessary barriers, like discrimination, which affect housing and employment. There isn’t a cookie-cutter fix for these problems. A history of incarceration is the only common denominator; each person has their own set of circumstances and needs, which require tailored care and coordination to support.
While we don’t yet have concrete numbers to compare the Homecoming Project’s housing costs with the those related to a transitional housing program, we know that by not paying the overhead costs associated with a brick and mortar building we save a significant amount of money. Those savings go to welcome kits, cell phones, food, and clothing. And funds invested in the Homecoming Project goes back into the hands of people in the community, thereby stimulating the economy at the grassroots level.
The outcomes of the program have been heartwarming thus far—exceeding what would be defined as successful. Our focal point is to see an individual succeed, but when the community embraces those who were once expelled out of society, the formerly incarcerated tap into their innate ability to thrive. They quickly accept the invitation to become a contributing member of society. They become members of your church congregation, your electrician, your radio hosts, and volunteers at food banks. They become our friends, family, and neighbors, and they blossom into incredible people I’m proud to represent, know, and serve.
The need for more homes is great. Letters of inquiry hit my desk daily, making our waiting list—which is now over 100—grow each week. There are so many individuals anxiously anticipating their release date and desperately trying to secure housing before they are paroled.
Introducing the Homecoming Program to potential hosts has been a challenge, which is why educating the community about what the program entails is key. We do this by hosting community outreach meetings to introduce the program to the public. In these meetings, we explain how the program works and share testimonials from hosts and participants about their experiences in the program. We also have a referral bonus program that incentivizes hosts to share the program with their contacts in order to receive a $200 bonus if a host they refer signs on and houses someone.
Running the Homecoming Project is more than a job for me. This work aligns with the commitment I made years ago to serve others as a way of making amends for my own past crimes. What I bring to the work from my own experience coming home after many years in prison along with my drive to change peoples’ lives for the better carries me forward. My heart swells, I smile wide, and often cry when I witness people genuinely connecting across their very different life experiences. And when someone who has spent what feels like a lifetime in prison finally gets a set of wings, we exchange a certain look, a shared understanding that they can indeed fly.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 edition of Shelterforce magazine.
Leveraging available living spaces to support people re-entering communities
Open your home to the Homecoming Project
Have you been looking for a way to meaningfully give back? Do you have an extra room in your home? Are you in need of additional income?
Join our growing community of Homecoming hosts who are making a life-altering difference in the lives of those returning home after incarceration! Hosts are community residents in Alameda or Contra Costa County who provide six months of housing in exchange for a daily stipend. You’ll play a truly invaluable role for people rejoining their communities and be an integral part of their success — making them feel welcome and included as they settle home.
The Homecoming Project is a unique model of shared housing designed specifically for those returning home from prison and who are at very low risk of committing another crime. We understand that you may feel apprehensive about this right now. That’s OK! We’d encourage you to learn more about the program and how we’ve made the health and safety of every participant and host a top priority.
What does this mean for you? This means your living situation and lifestyle are taken into careful consideration and we match you with someone who has similar preferences. You’ll have a wide variety of tools at your disposal: a robust orientation period and ongoing training opportunities; a network of peer hosts to share experiences and resources with; and program staff who will coach you along the way and respond quickly to your needs.
Who would I rent to?
Homecoming participants come into the program through several paths. This means you may rent to someone who is already out on parole and successfully completed an initial period in a traditional transitional housing program. Or you may rent to someone returning directly from state prison and who is under supervision of state parole. Either way, our staff rely on a risk-assessment tool that considers the positive changes eligible people already made in their life and their commitment to stay on a successful track. We also conduct independent assessments, screen, and vet participants for eligibility and promote compatibility matching that is beneficial for both the host and the participant.SHOW LESS
What is the process?
The process to assure compatibility in any placement involves these steps:
- Hosts share their preferences and are asked to consider applicants based on their choices. They are provided detailed applications to review that include previously committed offenses, in-custody conduct, background, personality traits, lifestyle preferences, etc.
- A qualified applicant is selected based on the host’s preferences and then is asked to consider the applicant and is provided the detailed application.
- The host will have the opportunity to speak to and possibly meet the proposed participant before accepting them into their home.
When possible, program staff will facilitate a face-to-face meeting with the potential participant and potential host. When a face-to-face meeting is not possible during the time a participant is still in custody, staff will coordinate at least one phone call to assess compatibility and establish connections between potential matches.
What are the next steps?
If you are interested in becoming a host, please submit an application online.
In addition, we ask you review all the necessary documents, agreements, and forms required to enroll in the program. All of these forms are given up front to provide you with clear expectations.
Once a match is agreed upon by host and participant, a move-in date will be established and a stipend of $25.00/day and a one-time security deposit of $250.00 will be provided.
Order of Operations:
- Application – standard personal information about you, your home, and your preferences
- Home inspection – a scheduled on-site visit to your home
- Orientation session – a detailed discussion and introduction about the program
- Matching – review applications and identify a strong potential match
- Housing arrangement – make it official and schedule a move-in date!