Leaving prison and having no place to call home is an all too typical scenario for those in reentry. But one California nonprofit has created The Homecoming Project, a unique program to deal with this challenge.
That nonprofit is the Oakland, Calif.-based Impact Justice, a national organization working on justice reform. The idea: Have local residents rent a room to someone in reentry. The program not only provides a home to people who desperately need one but also offers hosts that participate a unique opportunity.
Impact Justice’s pilot project was launched last August, and 12 people have been placed in homes in Alameda County (where Oakland is located) so far. The first set of hosts came from the faith community and prison-based organizations, but a host recruiter is doing outreach to expand awareness of the program.
Much more than just a housing program
The Homecoming Project goes beyond providing just a place to live. It also offers support to both participants and hosts.
Each of the participants works with a community navigator on an individual reentry plan. “The reentry plan requires assignments – attending job fairs, getting their documents, receiving long term housing counseling and doing technology advancement, along with dealing with budgeting and financing,” says Terah Lawyer, project coordinator for The Homecoming Project.
“They can come up with their own personal goals whether it’s reuniting with a child, becoming involved in their community or educational goals. Anything that is pertinent to their success. The community navigator will connect them to resources to help them achieve those goals.”
The hosts make a commitment as well. They first must attend host readiness school to determine whether they are ready to host a particular individual. “We do an assessment. We look at what is their profession, what is their community involvement. In addition, we look at their home and their neighborhood to make sure it’s OK to live in,” says Lawyer.
The program lasts for six months, and the hosts are paid a stipend of $750 per month during that time. They attend host sessions every 45 days with their returnees that focus on a variety of topics. These include parole conditions, conflict resolution, and budgeting and financing.
Although still a bit of an experiment, the program is achieving success. “We are bringing the community together and building relationships. People coming home from prison can really reintegrate,” says Lawyer.
One of those relationships has been established between Tamiko Panzella and her boyfriend, Joe Klein, who have welcomed 35-year-old Jason Jones to share their Oakland apartment. And for them it’s been a very positive experience.
The best thing about being a host
The best thing is having a relationship,” Panzella says. “Each host is really different. We live in a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot place, so we’re really close. Others have separate living quarters, and it’s more like a tenant situation. We were looking for someone to be a friend and part of the family.”
And they got what they were looking for. “Jason brings a different perspective. He went through crisis counseling while incarcerated. He did a lot of restorative justice training, so he brings emotional intelligence. We have a really strong friendship. He’s close with our whole family, with my mom,” she adds.
Panzella and Klein have been so happy with the situation that Jones has stayed beyond the six months. Although he’s looking for a place of his own, they’re in no hurry for him to leave. She says that they’re really happy they decided to be hosts. And other people who might consider doing the same can be assured that they will be supported.
“If people are feeling nervous, we have more protection than getting a roommate off of Craigslist,” Panzella says. “They came in with suggested house rules. They came in with a lot of support at the beginning to help get it set up. It’s been really rewarding. We’ve gotten to meet a lot of people we wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with. We have new friends.”
Meanwhile, Impact Justice is hoping to expand The Homecoming Project. Although currently operating only in Alameda County, the organization plans to include neighboring Contra Costa County, provided it can get the funding. “We hope to go around the country and train other organizations on how to implement this in the community,” Lawyer says.