Earl Brown

Where Some of the Most Housing-Challenged Philadelphians Find Help

A reentry program started by two federal judges gets results.

Story by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky

Photography by

Published on

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For a year after he was released from prison, Earl Brown slept on his aunt’s living room couch. He made sure to be up early every morning, so that by the time the other five members of the West Philadelphia household had risen, his blankets were stacked neatly off to the side. Brown’s aunt emptied two of her bedroom drawers for his clothes. “It worked,” says Brown. “They welcomed me.”

But Brown, who’s 44 with a dark bushy beard just beginning to gray, wasn’t happy. “I didn’t want to be a burden,” he says. Also, after nearly two decades in prison — with multiple cellmates at a time and virtually no privacy ever — he wanted his own space. “And,” he says, “nobody wants to sleep on a couch.”

Finding stable, affordable housing is rarely easy, no matter who you are. Doing so after years behind bars can be nearly impossible. Between 70 and 90 percent of people returning from prison move in with a family member or loved one, according to Carrie Pettus-Davis, a leading reentry expert and the director of the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation, a criminal justice think tank at Washington University in St. Louis. That’s mainly because of the numerous obstacles returning citizens face in finding their own home, ranging from financial hurdles to laws restricting where people with certain criminal histories can live, to issues of discrimination and bias. When landlords are willing to overlook criminal histories, returning citizens typically lack almost everything else that’s desired in a prospective tenant, including good credit, steady work and a bank account. Brown says he stayed put at his aunt’s because rental security deposits, often in the thousands, were “out of my means,” and because he didn’t have a credit history, which, he notes, “is really like bad credit.”

Tens of thousands of citizens return from prison to Philadelphia each year. According to the city’s Reentry Coalition, an alliance of nonprofits and government agencies run by the mayor’s office, between 55,000 and 60,000 residents are currently under supervised parole or probation. The difficulties they face in finding stable housing isn’t just a disheartening aside of the reentry process — it dramatically impacts recidivism. More than half of the city’s returning citizens are reincarcerated within three years — and homelessness doubles the risk, according to the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation. “Any instability or insecurity in housing impacts recidivism by creating much more stress for the individual,” says Pettus-Davis. “In the end, that stress ends up contributing to a worse outcome.”

And that outcome has effects that are felt across a city, from neighborhoods experiencing higher rates of homelessness, to courts bearing the cost of seeing the same defendants again and again. If Philadelphia’s reincarceration rate could be lowered by 25 percent, the city would save a projected $26 million annually.

In Philadelphia, there is growing recognition of the role housing plays in reducing recidivism and making communities safer. One of the city’s most successful reentry programs, STAR (Supervision to Aid Reentry), has developed a multifaceted approach to tackling the housing challenge. STAR’s work offers insight into the complexity of the housing issue and is an experiment that other cities are watching closely as they too seek to reduce incarceration rates and strengthen communities.

Founded in 2007 by two federal judges and run by the judges with support from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, STAR is designed to connect participants to job opportunities, internships, professional courses, skills training, family therapy, couples counseling and housing. It is voluntary and accepts around 40 former offenders at a time. The participants, among them Earl Brown, agree to a higher level of supervision, including biweekly in-court check-ins, in exchange for comprehensive wrap-around case management. The STAR team also includes representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other criminal justice agencies, and law clerks, volunteer tutors, and social workers. The program has no substantial dedicated funding. Rather, STAR team members each commit a slice of their job time within their own agencies and organizations to put toward this program. Once participants finish 52 weeks without any infractions (such as missing meetings with parole officers, failing to show up in court, driving without a license), a year is knocked off their parole or probation.

“Housing is a challenge for returning citizens because housing is a challenge anyway. Housing comes up over and over again as something that doesn’t have any obvious easy solutions.”

The program’s success rate is striking: Over the past 10 years, only 13 percent of graduates and 21 percent of all participants were arrested or had their parole revoked — compared to a 41 percent revocation rate for other returning citizens in the Philadelphia area. Federal courts in Miami, Delaware, Boston, Buffalo and New Jersey have all developed reentry courts based on this model.

When it comes to housing, STAR has forged partnerships with government agencies and local NGOs, and developed personal relationships with rental property companies because they realized how important it is to help their participants find stable living situations.

“When I started this program, I thought the answer was a job,” says STAR co-founder U.S. Circuit Court Judge Felipe Restrepo. “But it’s not.” What makes or breaks the newly released, Restrepo believes, is whether they feel a sense of community and stability in their lives — and secure housing is a major piece of that puzzle.

“Nothing Like Your Own Home”

Brown joined STAR in January 2015. He had been out of prison for two months, and was still living with his aunt and feeling unmoored.

Soon after, a STAR team member suggested he consider working at Revive and Restore, a program of the Friends Rehabilitation Program (FRP), a Quaker housing and social services nonprofit. With funding from STAR and the Eastern District Court, Revive and Restore turns abandoned buildings into affordable housing by training former offenders in skilled restoration work. Since its inception in early 2015, the program has trained nine STAR participants, employed five full-time, and created affordable housing for 13 families.

Brown was hesitant; he was making more money cleaning at a nearby medical facility. But he was also bored. So he opted for the pay cut, thinking it would be helpful to learn a real skill. He found that he not only liked carpentry, but also that he was a natural. “Brown picked up things very quickly,” says Peter Moor, FRP’s director of operations, who now considers Brown one of their top workers.

There was no initial agreement that Brown would live in one of the units, but when Moor saw Brown was struggling to find a good home, FRP offered him a deal: He could live in one of their units and they’d deduct $350 per month in rent while he stayed on as a handyman around their properties.

In February, Brown moved into a small 2-story, three-bedroom rowhome in West Philadelphia. “Ain’t nothing like your own home,” he said recently, as he sat at his kitchen table. Brown restored “everything you see” in the house: a remodeled kitchen, new flooring, replacement bathtub, tile work, moldings, fresh paint. “This is what the kitchen looked like,” he said, pulling up a cell phone picture of a wall with a 1-foot-in-diameter hole that had been chewed by rats. (To prevent this in the future, Brown put mesh lining in between the exterior of the building and the new wall.)

Elizabeth Powell, a reentry coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and one of two women who keep the STAR program running smoothly, works closely with program participants on the housing issue. She says that Brown having a home “is not an endgame for him, but definitely a big stepping-stone.” Brown’s confidence has grown, she notes, since the housing fell into place. Brown says: “I felt like I was being stagnated before.” Buoyed by having his own space, he says he’s considering doing a challenging but prestigious apprenticeship with a local carpenters’ union.

Another way STAR assists with housing is through a pilot partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which awards STAR 10 vouchers for subsidized housing annually. Federal regulations prevent anyone with methamphetamine or sex offense convictions from getting subsidized housing (or living with anyone who’s on assistance) but STAR works primarily with people who have other kinds of violent criminal histories, so most on their rolls are eligible. PHA vouchers last a lifetime, but the program requires recipients to pass them off to another STAR person every two years.

About a year ago, Darryl Booker got a voucher. Booker is 57 and has a chronic heart condition that takes him in and out of the hospital and makes physical activity, including walking up stairs, nearly impossible. When he was released in 2015, “I didn’t have no one,” he says. He spent his first months in a halfway house — group homes for returning citizens with nowhere else to go. Halfway houses are known for their deplorable conditions and Booker’s health worsened while living there. “It was a very stressful situation,” he says.

After a few months, he’d reached the end of his allotted time in the house and was told he’d have to leave, even if it meant going to a shelter. Booker was panicked. Unable to work or to navigate the public benefit system to get government assistance, Booker remembers wondering if he’d ever have a home again.

Around this time, his parole officer told him about STAR and he agreed to join the program. (Most participants learn about STAR this way.) The STAR team petitioned the halfway house for an extension, and then found Booker temporary housing while working on his social security payments. Then he was allotted a PHA voucher. It took several more weeks of searching before they found a suitable apartment — in a building with an elevator — in North Philadelphia.

Booker now spends most days mentoring and volunteering with various community organizations. “Having something of my own to stand on, my own apartment and being able to have social security to pay the bills,” he says, “I feel very, very blessed.”

For those not involved in Revive and Restore or who don’t get vouchers, the STAR team has developed multiple ways to help individuals with housing searches. Collins Eubanks is a case in point. Eubanks was released from prison in October 2015 and moved in with the mother of his son. He and his son, Tyreek, who’s 24 and Eubanks’ best friend, immediately started looking for a place of their own. A capable man who got his GED and completed several professional development courses while in prison, Eubanks was not at a loss for work. This, combined with his son’s income from carpentry, meant they had the money for rent.

But what Eubanks didn’t have was the know-how to find a place in the online era. He would spend weeks chasing after sketchy Craigslist postings that most internet-savvy individuals never would have pursued. At least once, Powell says, she stopped him from handing over a large amount of cash to someone who would have likely disappeared with it.

Eubanks was also picky. He fell into drug dealing when he was young, in part, he says, because in his neighborhood, that’s all he saw. His son has avoided that same fate and Eubanks wants to keep it that way. But the areas where landlords seemed not to care about his criminal history were also the most crime-ridden. Eubanks turned down one apartment because “as soon as you step out the door, there were people selling guns,” and another because a nurse was shot at a bus stop around the corner.

The STAR team tries to walk a fine line between letting participants learn what it takes to live in the outside world and offering support when needed. Eventually, Powell and Eubanks decided to approach Iron Stone, a rental company that STAR had worked with previously. (Powell says that this company and one other have been friends of the program, willing to be flexible in figuring out solutions for STAR participants.) The company agreed to overlook Eubanks’ criminal history and bad credit and offered him a place near La Salle University. “Compared to where I come from, it’s great,” Eubanks says of his two-bedroom apartment. “I’m with my son, it’s a quiet neighborhood, I got no complaints,” he says, though he doesn’t much like living in an apartment. He and Tyreek are already making plans to find a house in the coming year.

A significant portion of STAR participants list housing as a major concern at the time of intake, according to Powell. There are other, less flashy ways the team tries to help — like free tax assistance, and encouraging participants to pay off traffic court fines and set up a savings account — so that they’ll be more attractive tenants. It doesn’t always work. Powell admits that for a time both Brown and Eubanks were frustrated with the slow pace of their housing search. Several current STAR participants are still in untenable living situations. “I have one guy who’s been in and out of a shelter for a long time,” says Restrepo. “Another is living out of his car.”

Returning citizens without support of a program like STAR, however, often fare worse. “Housing is a challenge for returning citizens because housing is a challenge anyway,” says Aviva Tevah, who heads up the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition. “Housing comes up over and over again as something that doesn’t have any obvious easy solutions,” she says. (The housing committee of the Reentry Coalition is not currently active due to an internal transition, but they’re planning to relaunch soon.)

Brown plays with his 2-year-old granddaughter, Cassidy. 

That lack of solutions is deeply problematic says Anthony Dickerson, of The Center for Returning Citizens, a community support and advocacy organization founded by a returning citizen based in Germantown. “Housing is the foundation for everything,” Dickerson says. During his many years incarcerated, with rotating cellmates and zero privacy, Dickerson says he dreamed about a place of his own. “One of the things you most look forward to is your own sanctuary,” he says.

For Brown, at least, that dream has become a reality. On a recent winter day, he stood at his stove wearing a large hoodie, three-quarter-length pants and black tube socks, mixing up salmon and vegetables for a “salmon cheesesteak.” It was his seventh day in his own home. The apartment is sparsely furnished: a bed, living room set and TV, and a kitchen table and chairs. He’s looking forward to soon buying silver curtains and furnishing one of the bedrooms for his granddaughter Cassidy, who’s 2 years old. In time, he hopes to become a homeowner, purchasing at least one property out of the city where it’s quiet and another that he can pass on to Cassidy.

That afternoon he recalled his initiation into STAR. He said he’d always been dumbfounded by how the U.S. criminal justice system “puts [prisoners] back into society with what? Nothing that’s going to secure me to be able to stay out there.” So, he explained, when he first heard about the program while in prison, he knew he wanted to join. He began writing letters to STAR co-founder U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice asking to be accepted. Brown paused, and smiled wide. “The first time I stood before Judge Rice,” at his biweekly court check-in, Brown said, “the judge says to everyone, ‘This is my friend Earl who wrote to me from jail.’”

From that day forward, Brown said, “I had a different outlook for the whole court system.”

This feature is​ one in an occasional series, part of a regionwide collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia. Click here to read more work by our partners.

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Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She also leads The Reentry Project, a collaboration among 15 area newsrooms reporting on the issues faced by people returning from prison, and how those challenges can be solved.

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