From A Cell To A Home: Newly Released Inmates Matched With Welcoming Hosts

01/16/2019
It's a Friday night and roommates Jason Jones and Tamiko Panzella are hanging out in the Oakland, Calif., apartment they share, laughing about an epic gym workout misfire.
 
"I get there and we have to take our shoes and socks off. And I'm like, oh no, she got me into yoga. She tricked me," Jones says, laughing.
 
What made the yoga session more jarring — it was Jones' first full day of freedom after more than a decade behind bars.
 
"Yeah they tell me to get into Downward Dog," Jones says as Panzella chuckles. "That's the one position you don't want to be in in prison. The second day out! And I look over there and she's dying laughing."
 
On one level, it's all normal, life-with-roommates kind of stuff. But it's new for Jones, 35.
He recently was released on parole, serving nearly 14 years in a series of California prisons for felony assault with a deadly weapon.
 
Jones and Panzella are part of a first-of-its-kind program that's providing vitally needed housing for inmates released from prison. The program also aims to break down misconceptions and fear surrounding the formerly incarcerated in a nation that imprisons more people than any other.
 
The Homecoming Project in Alameda County, Calif., is matching prisoners being released after long sentences with homeowners and renters who want to take part in the experiment. The nonprofit behind the program pays the former inmates' rent for six months and actively supports the partnership.
 
Call it the social justice arm of the sharing economy. "The sharing economy with a conscience, with values," says Alex Busansky, a former prosecutor and Justice Department lawyer. He now runs Impact Justice, the group behind the novel housing initiative.
 
For people getting out of prison, the penalty hasn't ended and re-entry is its own obstacle course that everybody has to navigate. And housing is essential to being able to get through that obstacle course.

The Homecoming Project provides cash subsidies to homeowners in exchange for renting a room to a former inmate, Busansky says. It is similar to how Airbnb allows people to monetize their extra living spaces.
 
"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 says. "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."
 
How it works
 
Finding stable, affordable housing — especially in the San Francisco Bay Area — is often one of the biggest barriers to ex-inmates, along with finding a decent job and getting their life back on track.
 
Across America, most inmates getting out after serving a lengthy sentence are offered some kind of transitional housing or a slot in a halfway house.
 
That usually involves communal living in cramped quarters with other ex-convicts. Often, there are strict curfews, limits on visitors and other prisonlike rules and restrictions. Some former inmates chafe at those limits, because it can limit their ability to reconnect with family or find a job.
 
But this program has none of that. Participants come and go as they please. Issues that arise are worked out like any normal roommate situation.
 
"Project Homecoming says you're a person and we're going to treat you like a person and give you the footholds and the scaffolding to be able to come back home and to be a full member of society just like anybody else," Busansky says.
 
Both ex-inmates and home hosts are carefully screened, through interviews and home visits, to make sure it's a good housing match. Hosts agree to rent to the ex-prisoner for at least six months. There is training for the hosts before anyone gets a key to the home and follow-up support for all of them on the often unique and formidable challenges facing the formerly imprisoned.
 
Most of our hosts are familiar with redemption and change and want to be a part of helping be the stepping stone for someone's second chance.

 
"We take a hard look at people's pasts," says the program's coordinator, Terah Lawyer, who, as a formerly incarcerated woman, knows about the challenges of transitioning back home. "We have to look at their past as an indicator of what they've become over time. And most of our hosts are familiar with redemption and change and want to be a part of helping be the stepping stone for someone's second chance."
 
So far, the experiment is small. It launched just a few months ago with six male ex-convicts paired with local hosts — couples and families — around the Bay Area. Impact Justice hopes to expand it to 25 participants by the end of this year.
 
Tamiko Panzella says she was initially apprehensive. But she had volunteered at a local prison and knew the challenges facing the formerly incarcerated. The more she learned, the more she and her boyfriend became excited to take part in the pilot.
 
"Because it's not just working with the person in front of you," Panzella says. "If it's successful, this is something that could be replicated" in other American cities to smooth re-entry for former prisoners. In the U.S., more than 600,000 people are released from prison every year.

Eric Westervelt for NPR

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