Philadelphia Department of Commerce
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In 2018, a man nicknamed Bear was released from Philadelphia’s Alternative & Special Detention prison facility on State Road after finishing a 20-year sentence. It was late at night, and Bear had just taken a shower after working his job at the orchard when an officer surprised him with news of his release.
Bear was handed his street clothes, given a bus token, and driven a few blocks away to the nearest stop. He had no money, no home, no plan.
“When you max your sentence out, you leave, and they are no longer responsible for you once they drop you off at the nearest bus station,” Bear says. “They don’t even care if you buy a bus ticket. Once they drop you off, that’s it. They are done with you.”
Reentry after incarceration is turbulent, with little support for most returning citizens and limited options for secure, long-term housing and employment. For two years, Bear lived on the street.
A new community violence intervention program beginning in Philadelphia this spring connects providing basic needs services to gun violence reduction. Led by the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice & Public Safety, the initiative will provide returning citizens with wraparound services like therapy, employment and, crucially, housing assistance with the aim of reducing violence and recidivism.
Participants attend group and individual meetings for 12–18 months that assist with professional development, trauma, safe housing opportunities and other support services they may need. Case managers will follow up after the program ends to ensure that participants transition smoothly to being self-sufficient.
The city is partnering with community organizations and credible messengers who have strong relationships with communities to identify and connect with people who might be at risk for suffering or perpetrating violence, says Jeran Crawford, director of economic mobility and workforce development at CJPS. They hope for the program to feel like a supportive family, rather than an obligation people feel required to complete.
“That changes the narrative when credible messengers, someone from the community who’s experienced the same type of things could then try to encourage someone, versus a mandate from the judge or, versus a mandate from a parole officer, where they’re made to go,” Crawford says.
The program is modeled after READI, a program started in Chicago in 2017, working with high-risk individuals, who often were victims of violence themselves or formerly incarcerated. It’s also similar to other programs in Philadelphia that take an individualized approach to support, like the city’s Group Violence Intervention initiative, that have been implemented successfully, says CJPS Interim Director Joshu Harris.
The model’s holistic approach has proven effective. Half of READI participants are still working full time a year after attending the program, and the experimental group experienced a 79% reduction in arrests for shootings and homicide and a 47% reduction in violence victimization, according to a 2022 study by the Heartland Alliance.
CJPS is investigating permanent housing opportunities for participants living in unsafe or tumultuous homes, and is collaborating with housing agencies in Philadelphia to make these resources available, Harris says. For those in emergency situations, CJPS will be providing immediate relocation services through the Office of the Victim Advocate.
“We recognize, partly based upon our experience with [Group Violence Intervention], that housing is a common challenge that people face, and that it’s hard to meet their other needs, if those housing challenges aren’t resolved,” Harris says.
Housing in particular is foundational to successful reentry because of the stability, safety and wellbeing it provides, says Catherine Weigley, clinical director at the Goldring Reentry Initiative, one of several programs partnering with the City of Philadelphia for its new READI adaption. Goldring helps people exiting the carceral system create reentry plans that are then used as petitions for early release. “Knowing you have a safe place to rest your head, for your mental health, for your physical health, it’s so important,” Weigley says. Without a home, people can’t easily store documents, belongings and money, keep track of appointments or feel capable of living the life they desire.
“It can be very difficult to accomplish anything – any of those goals on the reentry plan – if you don’t know where you’re going to be staying from day to day.”
Bear graduated from the Goldring program in 2021 and now lives in a comfortable apartment in North Central Philadelphia with a “tolerable” roommate and a cat named Snowball. Before Goldring and the nonprofit Resources for Human Development’s Rapid Re-Housing program helped find Bear housing, he was unhoused, bathing in the Logan Circle fountain and sleeping on the street near the Convention Center.
Bear lived in a few shelters, like Philly House, but would often have to leave after his allotted time ended, or once because another resident attacked him.
There are very few positive options for housing in the city, Weigly says. People are hesitant to enter shelters because of past traumatic experiences, theft of their belongings and physical violence. Those who enter the shelter system report sleeping in chairs, overcrowded conditions, abuse, stolen items and high mental distress, she says.
“It’s really the luck of the draw, wherever there’s a bed available that people get placed in,” Weigley says. Some Goldring clients have opted to live on the street rather than live in a shelter. “A lot of them don’t feel safe to people, and maybe aren’t.”
Street homelessness felt like the best option for Bear. Many housing programs wouldn’t help him because of his criminal record, but it was also impossible to find housing without their help.
Permanent housing requires a bank account, a credit score, forms of identification, and the ability to read and write to fill out an application, among other requirements. When you have been incarcerated for decades, you don’t have those things or the money to obtain them, says Kevin Butler, a criminal justice reform advocate and member of the Gray Panthers who was incarcerated for 32 years.
Without the support of Called to Serve, a reentry program at the Zion Baptist Church that provides holistic, individualized support to returning citizens, Butler would have been homeless, he says. Working with the community development entity’s Cleaning Ambassadors program let Butler make money, feel connected to his community and find a safe place to live.
Members of Called to Serve pose with an award recognizing their litter reduction efforts and community achievements at the Taking Care of Business Clean Corridors Pep Rally on April 22, 2o22. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Department of Commerce)
Having a supportive, reliable network can make all the difference for returning citizens. Many don’t have a way to contact their friends and family from before their arrest, or they may be returning to living situations that encourage them to commit crimes.
Many programs also overpromise but under deliver, leaving people feeling deceived and unwilling to continue seeking support, Butler says. Most people he knew leaving prison didn’t have anyone to turn to.
“When you come out of the penitentiary, or even the county jail, you don’t have those connections, you came from a home, and then you come out homeless,” says Rev. Harvey Bass, supervisor for the Cleaning Ambassadors. “Now you have to find a place to live and then the whole world seems to be against them.”
Amelia Price, corridor manager at Called to Serve, adds that returning citizens are routinely insulted at every turn; people ignore them, offer meager wages for hard labor and treat them as if they pose a threat to the community, rather than being welcoming and supportive.
Called to Serve starts every worker earning $15 an hour with opportunities for promotion and pathways to finding stable careers. They give people second chances in situations that they would normally be fired to show they are a family and will support them through challenges, Price explains.
“I’m a nobody, just trying to tell anybody that the homeless and returning citizens are somebody,” Price says.
Robert White, a cleaning supervisor and formerly incarcerated person, says he was scared to leave the carcerale system and return to his former lifestyle. He tried to find work, and a few times was even hired, but when employers saw his criminal record they would rescind the job offer.
When White connected with Called to Serve, he says it was the first time he didn’t feel looked down on by the people around him.
He worked as a cleaning ambassador for several years before being promoted to supervisor, and now makes $20 an hour doing work that feels meaningful and connected to his community.
“I love being out there cleaning the neighborhood, and then now, people that see the neighborhood clean, they start cleaning the neighborhood, then I get to talk to people about the Lord,” White says.
Called to Serve’s leaders say community organizations like their own have the trust and credibility needed to connect with returning citizens, making them powerful allies in the city’s new violence intervention project.
As cities like Philadelphia implement community violence interventions, it’s important that they recognize the specific needs and challenges of their communities and partner with community organizations for outreach and support services, says Marlon Tatum, director of programs for READI Chicago.
“We used academics to try to put out that best curriculum at first, and that was not effective,” Tatum says. “We needed to use the individuals that we were trying to give the service to, to really help create that curriculum.”
Participants shouldn’t feel coerced into the program, Tatum says. The model works best when participants have a strong desire to change their behavior, which is why people volunteer to attend READI but have the choice to reject a recommendation to participate.
“What we see up front is, ‘I don’t know, what makes you think this is going to work? Cognitive Behavioral what? What are you talking about?’” Tatum says. “Once they get in it, they’re like, ‘oh, wow, I wish I would have thought of that 10 years ago,’ or ‘that would have been very helpful back before I picked up my first gun.’”
READI National helped Philadelphia conduct community needs assessments and surveys about what resources people want to address gun violence, which were ultimately economic opportunities, mental health supports and holistic care services, says Amaury Ávalos, communications director for CJPS.
Robert White accepts Called to Serve’s award for their litter reduction efforts and community achievements at the Taking Care of Business Clean Corridors Pep Rally on April 22, 2o22. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Deparment of Commerce)
City officials say they will continue to identify community and individual needs as the program rolls out to ensure that the resources are relevant to participants. There will also be an independent evaluation of the Philadelphia READI adaptation that will be conducted as the program is implemented so that results will be known quickly and the program reassessed if needed.
Community violence interventions have produced effective results across the nation, reducing homicides and nonfatal shootings by up to 60% in some areas, according to researchers at the Center for American Progress. The center attributes a 30% reduction in Philadelphia-area shootings and killings to community intervention programs.
CSJP hopes that once people complete the program, they can become program leaders and community leaders, extending these supports to others through informal employment and social networks, Crawford says.
“The individuals and participants, they become inspired by the stories and the successes of their peers,” he said. “That drives them to come back tomorrow.”
White now lives in Mt. Airy, grateful for the direction his life has gone. He hopes to get his record expunged so that he has more freedom to live without his past affecting him, but his work at Called to Serve shows him it is possible to live a good life.
“It makes me think that all that I’ve been through, it seems like it wasn’t in vain,” White says. “I had to go through what I had to go through to become the person I am.”
Natalie Kerr is a 2023 graduate of Temple University’s journalism program. She is a Philadelphia Movement Media Fellow at Just Media.
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