Addressing the Incarceration to Homelessness Pipeline

The start of a New Year is a time of reflection and gratitude. But, let’s be honest, it’s very easy to get distracted by what’s happening “right now.” Today was one of those days for me. My plans were normal: get up early, work out, take the car in for a much-needed detail and spend the morning at the office preparing for 2019. However, the universe had other plans for me–a flat tire. Not just a simple flat tire, a tire that was there to remind me of yesterday’s aggravation…terrible customer service, technology challenges, missed appointment, time with a seriously ill friend…all wrapped up in a wrong turn that led to the pothole that apparently popped my tire.

Stuck at home, I started to put Christmas away, when a bottle of “Grapeful Dead” wine gifted to me by a colleague caught my attention. A moment of “grapefulness.” It reminded me of my holiday visit with our women incarcerated at Perryville correctional facility. My colleagues in orange shared how appreciative they were for the past year and how enthusiastic they are for the upcoming New Year. It’s amazing and humbling to listen to these women reflect on and express gratitude for what they have, when we know they are missing so much. I started to reflect on my year and was quickly reminded of my most memorable moment this holiday season.

My husband and I volunteered at the Phoenix Rescue Mission Winter Wonderland. A young man wearing shorts and a t-shirt approached us in the parking lot. He had just been released from jail and had nowhere to go. He was without money and had only the clothes on his back. He asked if we had an old sweatshirt, jacket or anything warm he could have to get him through the night. My husband fetched him a jacket from the mission’s closet and let him know that if he came back on Monday morning, he could come into the Transforming Lives Center as a client and get whatever help he needed: addiction, job training, education and housing. What saddened me was that nothing could be done to help him over the weekend. He had to survive on whatever he could beg or borrow, or possibly even steal to get him through the weekend.

I was heartbroken, not just for the young man but for all of us.

If this is our model for releasing people from prison and back into society, how can we expect to put an end to homelessness or stop the revolving door of incarceration and recidivism? And this young man isn’t an anomaly. More than 10% of those coming in and out of prisons and jails are homeless in the months preceding and following their incarceration. Little did I know that this experience would mirror another that I’d have the very next day.

The Monday before the Christmas holiday, I arrived at Perryville to interview one of our own, Danielle Walker, who was being released from prison. As it turns out, Danielle’s situation is oddly like the man at the mission. She was released with just the clothes on her back, no family or friends to call on, and no place to call home. However, Danielle was given the gifts of empathy, education and opportunity, thanks to her experience with Televerde. Through our company, the non-profit organization Arouet Foundation engaged with Danielle about one year ago before her release to prepare her to reenter society with counseling, mentoring and other support services. They provided Danielle with a “care purse” filled with necessities. In addition, her years working at Televerde allowed her to leave prison with a substantial bank account and an opportunity to continue her career at our headquarters, beginning Jan. 7.

After an emotional greeting in the prison parking lot, Danielle and I went to lunch, then on errands to pick up things she’d need to thrive: a trip to Target for toiletries and clothing, AT&T to get a phone, meet-up with Rhonda, a former Televerde graduate who runs a fabulous three-quarter house that Danielle will call home for now.

Driving home alone is when it hit me: the juxtaposition of Danielle and the young man from Winter Wonderland. Very similar situations, but because of a single opportunity came vastly different outcomes. Thanks to the chance to learn, work and earn a place in society, Danielle is 65% less likely to return to prison.

I always tout our Televerde business model as a proven methodology for helping people successfully re-enter society following incarceration, because it is (while statewide rates of recidivism are as high as 70%, for women of Televerde, it’s less than 5.5 percent. But, we aren’t the only organization doing it right.

For example, Home Builders Association of Central Arizona is working with local companies to train and place inmates in hard to fill trade positions, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters and HVAC. Housing First also understands the importance shelter plays on enabling people to successfully make the transition back into society. And let’s not forget the Ban the Box movement, which is aimed at ensuring all employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first—without the stigma of a conviction or arrest record. How can someone who is formerly incarcerated ever succeed on the outside without proper housing and a growth job or career opportunity?

As much as I am grateful for the work that Televerde and Arouet do to help women who are incarcerated, I know we’re only scratching the surface. There are 2.3M people currently incarcerated and almost 50,000 enter homeless shelters annually immediately after exiting incarceration. As a country, we need to get better at providing the most basic services, including supportive housing and employment to those who need it most, otherwise this crisis will continue to the detriment of families, communities and taxpayers.

Substance abuse, unemployment, incarceration and homelessness are all intricately intertwined. We cannot solve any one of these without understanding the implications of the others. So, today, on Jan. 2, I am extremely grateful that I can help influence change where it is needed most. We all can.

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