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A Place for Released Prisoners to Go Home

by Ed Lyon

A new program that began in 2018 in Alameda County, California aims to assist former prisoners with housing needs. The Homecoming Project matches newly released prisoners with hosts who are subsidized in what founder Alex Busansky describes as an Airbnb-style solution to the acute need to house former prisoners, who are 10 times more likely than other Americans to lack permanent shelter.

Busansky, a former prosecutor who is now president of Impact Justice (IJ), a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, says that having a home address enables former prisoners to more easily obtain a driver’s license and employment. But in a real estate market with few affordable housing options, landlords have little incentive to compound their financial risk by renting to ex-offenders.

“For people getting out of prison, the penalty hasn’t ended and re-entry is its own obstacle course that everybody has to navigate,” Busansky stated. “And housing is essential to being able to get through that obstacle course: If you don’t have a place to sleep, to shower, to keep your things, it’s very difficult to think about doing anything else.”

IJ’s Homecoming Project matches newly released prisoners with people who have a spare bedroom and a willingness to help others. Under a six-month agreement the project subsidizes rental payments up to $25 per day, or around $750 per month. The parties may then decide to continue with an unsubsidized lease after the initial six-month period expires.

“We take a hard look at people’s pasts,” said Terah Lawyer, a former prisoner who serves as program coordinator. “We have to look at their past as an indicator of what they’ve become over time.”

Although anxious to add hosts, she noted the project “can’t just say ‘yes’ to anyone and everyone,” because they refuse “to house people in unsafe neighborhoods that are not nurturing,” or where former prisoners might be at risk of re-offending.

Besides screening applicants and matching them with hosts, the Homecoming Project provides ongoing coaching to both parties designed to improve their skills at communicating, problem solving, decision-making and collaboration. Busansky called it an example of “the sharing economy with a conscience.”

In addition to practical benefits like obtaining a job, the program also offers participating former prisoners a chance to learn lifestyle behaviors that they may not have been exposed to.

“They’re in the community, in someone’s home, able to watch how they buy groceries, clean their home, live a normal life, get up, go to work and come home [to] enjoy a TV show,” Lawyer said. “And what that really looks like in real time is essential as an example to our participants who have been completely out of society for 10-plus years.”

One of the first program participants was Jason Jones, who joined after his 2018 release from California’s prison system, where he served 14 years for felony assault with a deadly weapon. The 35-year-old first got into criminal trouble at age eight, after which he cycled through foster and group homes that all included “some kind of abuse either mentally, verbally, physically,” he said, often with “some type of drug use in the household.”

It was “a horrible experience,” he explained. “Makes you lose faith in people; you start to stop trusting people.”

Like everyone released from California prisons, Jones walked out with $200 in cash. But he had also learned computer coding through a training program for prisoners called The Last Mile, so he had a job waiting for him. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.20]. But he didn’t have a place to stay and he had reservations about the Homecoming Project, too.

“I was like, man, this feel like adult foster care, like I’m getting adopted again,” Jones said. “Going into a stranger’s household, getting judged all over again.”

But in a few months he and his hosts, Tamiko Panzella and her boyfriend, Joe Klein, not only worked out sharing the couple’s Oakland apartment but also became friends. Panzella said she became interested in the program after volunteering at a local prison, where she saw how access to housing impacts all other challenges facing newly released prisoners.

“It’s not just working with the person in front of you,” Panzella stated. “If it’s successful, this is something that could be replicated” across the U.S., where over 600,000 prisoners are released every year.

“It’s hard to tell people, ‘This is a great idea and you should try it; bring a stranger getting out of prison into your home,’” Busansky acknowledged, but he believes his program serves as a way to personalize the experience of former prisoners for the larger population.

“For many people,” he said, “the story of prison in America is not a story they know.”

The program began with six parolees. By April 2019 it had expanded to 10, with one already moved into a residence of his own. All current and former program participants have found and are maintaining employment.

As of October 2019, a total of six participants had successfully completed their initial six-month lease. Three moved into housing of their own with the other three extending the original leases with their hosts.

“It’s the first time I felt like I’m actually part of a family, you know what I mean?” said Jones, who has reunited with a teenage son and daughter and is trying to get custody of another daughter currently in foster care. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for this situation and the sacrifices and things that Joe and Tamiko were able to do, I don’t know exactly how far along I would be.” 



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