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Leaving Prison for a Real Home in California

A pilot program started by a nonprofit in Alameda County, California seeks to meet an acute need for shelter faced by a group that doesn’t get much positive attention: recently released prisoners. Run by former prosecutor Alex Busansky, the nonprofit is called Impact Justice (IJ), and its program, the Homecoming Project (HP), pays people with a spare bedroom $25 a day to let a recently released prisoner call it home.

Due to the stigma of their criminal past, parolees and those fresh out of prison find it especially difficult to obtain shelter. Nationwide, this group is 10 times more likely to become homeless than citizens who have never been imprisoned. Yet a home address is necessary to obtain a driver’s license, and it is also important in obtaining a job – vital components of a successful reintegration into society.

Busansky, whose nonprofit’s mission statement is affecting justice reforms, studied this problem and wondered if a program like Airbnb might offer a viable solution. From that germ of an idea, HP was born in 2018.

Coordinating the program is former prisoner Terah Lawyer. Her primary job is to pair a prisoner with a compatible person who has a spare bedroom and a willingness to help others. After a prisoner’s release, Lawyer allows the prospective housemates a face-to-face meeting before breaking out a six-month lease agreement for them to sign, with IJ footing the $750 monthly cost for that initial term.

All current and former HP participants maintain steady jobs and the program reports a zero percent recidivism rate. If the resident and former prisoner hit it off, they may enter into another lease between them after the initial six-month term. IJ does not foot any of that bill. But with the pilot program’s success to date, it seems to offer one answer to a newly released prisoner’s need for shelter.

HP was begun with a grant from the Emerson Collective, a social justice nonprofit run by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steven Jobs. IJ’s initial request would have covered 50 releasees in the program, but that was eventually reduced to 15. Six parolees started and four more were placed by April 2019. By the time all 15 slots had been filled, six had successfully completed their initial six-month lease. Three found housing elsewhere and three renewed their initial leases.

Including host training, case management costs and rent, the total six-month cost per HP participant is about $10,000, compared to a cost of $17,246 for a six-month period in a federal reentry center or halfway house, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). However, there may be some fundamental differences between the two programs, a BOP spokeswoman cautioned.

Funding for a second wave of releasees has yet to be secured. IJ’s Chief Operating Officer, Maureen Vittoria, believes the newness of HP may explain why funding has been so difficult to find. As Alex Frank, project director for the Vera Institute of Justice explained, “Any new project that is against the norm carries a lot of risk.”

With over 100 applications from soon-to-be-released California prisoners on their desks now, Lawyer and Vittoria are persisting in their efforts to secure funding to continue HP, petitioning private donors as well as state and federal government agencies. They hope to expand HP throughout California and eventually the rest of the country.

With over 2 million prisoners across the country, almost all of whom will be released from prison someday, Lawyer and Vittoria say they have their work cut out for them.