Client Eric Neely (left) talks with Senior Ex-Offenders Program Director Ceyante Pennix.

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Easing the Way Home for Returning Senior Citizens

From finding a place to live to getting a debit card, a first-of-its-kind San Francisco program supports seniors in the challenging and often stressful task of returning home after incarceration.

Story by Kate McQueen

Photography by Eddie Herena

Published on Oct 14, 2019

In 2015, when Wendell El-Amin James stepped out of California’s Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), after 27 years and 9 months in the state prison system, he felt ready, as he tells it, “to put boots on the ground.”

“I knew one day I was going home,” James says, “so I knew I was going to have to work and better myself, to be better than when I came in.”

That homecoming preparation was a long journey. At the start of his prison term, James was 35 years old and functionally illiterate. Over time, he taught himself to read and write. He corrected a speech impediment by learning to slow down when he talked. He took classes, and got certified as a drug and alcohol specialist. Under encouragement from his imam, James started a support group at Old Folsom Prison, which he then brought to DVI after his transfer. Gradually he cultivated a vision for his future, to help older formerly incarcerated people— especially those like himself who served long sentences — find their way back into society.

Maintaining relationships back home helped to soften his landing. The native San Franciscan was able to move in with family. His religious community embraced him. He could collect a pension from his time working at the city’s shipyard. Last but not least, he secured an internship with the Senior Ex-Offenders Program (SEOP), the first reentry service in the nation created specifically for older men and women, which gave him the chance to develop the counseling he did inside prison into an outside profession. Today, the 67-year-old is an SEOP case manager, and devotes his days to helping returning citizens of similar age and background find their footing.

Wendell El-Amin James returns home, in 2015. (Credit: Ta'leef Collective)

James’ success is not easily replicated. Older returning citizens often struggle after being released from custody. They are less likely than younger counterparts to recidivate, but they experience higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, chronic medical conditions and loneliness. These problems are exacerbated in the Bay Area, where the shortage of affordable housing and living-wage employment is an urgent concern.

“Older people have a different set of needs,” SEOP Director Cayente Pennix says. “We work with clients pre- and post-release to prepare them, to give them a vision through their barriers, and to create a treatment plan that they can follow.”

Founded in 2002, the SEOP is the oldest and still one of the only reentry programs in the country to focus specifically on the needs of older formerly incarcerated people. Its work has become increasingly relevant, in part because of several recent legislative and voter-enacted reforms intended to reduce California’s incarcerated population. Among those reforms were propositions 36, 47 and 57, along with former Governor Jerry Brown’s efforts to reduce the number of prisoners serving life sentences.

Older prisoners are being released in record numbers. Last year, 10,021 people age 50 or older were on active parole from California state prisons, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). That’s 21 percent of the total parole population, a number the CDCR suggests will continue to grow over the next five years, with a net increase of 5.3 percent. In addition, seniors make up a small but significant portion of individuals on probation from county jails, a number that in San Francisco hovers around 8 percent.

This situation will soon extend beyond California. While overall incarceration in the U.S. is steadily declining, the percentage of older prisoners continues to grow. According to a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, approximately ten percent of the nation’s state and federal incarcerated population was aged 50 or older. The Osborne Association estimates this percentage will triple by 2030. Most of these seniors will eventually exit custody, regardless of how prepared they are to reenter society, or how equipped communities are to receive them. The lessons SEOP has learned over the years can serve as a useful guide for programs aiming to support older returning citizens across the country.

Building a Home in Bayview

SEOP is headquartered in a sunny, ground-floor office on the corner of Third Street and Armstrong Avenue in the heart of Bayview Hunters Point, a historically African-American neighborhood on San Francisco’s southeastern edge. Photos of smiling older African Americans line its storefront, a warm welcome for clients who drop by the office. “Each one is a pillar of the community,” says SEOP Intensive Case Manager Steven Clark.

To the right of the front door, in place of prominence, is a portrait of Dr. George Davis, a gerontologist who served as the executive director of Bayview Senior Services, SEOP’s parent organization, from its inception in 1982 until his death in 2010. In addition to SEOP’s reentry programming, Bayview Senior Services offers meals, recreation activities, educational classes, social services and housing specifically to low-income African-American seniors who live in the neighborhood. Its mission, as stated on the organization’s website, is “to enhance and retain the health, quality of life, and culture of African-American elders” in San Francisco.

Wendell El-Amin James is now a SEOP case manager. He also records a weekly TV show at the Bay Area Video Coalition, for the local public access channel.

The idea for a senior-focused reentry program came from Dr. Davis, who anticipated the need decades ago, according to Cathy Davis, his widow and the parent organization’s current executive director.

“We’re part of the neighborhood, connected to the community. When you’re that connected, you can’t help notice what’s going on,” Cathy Davis says. “[George] noticed people were coming home old, aged beyond their years. Already in the 1990s and 2000s, people were getting out without support systems, carrying that stigma.”

Bayview Senior Services was able to launch the SEOP in 2002 with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation and through partnerships with the city and county government, including the Department of Aging and Adult Services and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Another important early contract was with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. In 2006, it began pursuing more organized collaboration with nonprofit organizations that were already a part of San Francisco neighborhoods most affected by crime, according to the Sheriff’s Department Director of Programs Ali Riker. This initiative, the No Violence Alliance (NOVA), has provided financial support to SEOP for case management and transitional housing ever since.

The Davises brought in Frank Williams to serve as the first SEOP director. Williams, a formerly incarcerated counselor who earned a doctoral degree in criminal justice while working at SEOP, built the program on several years’ worth of scholarly and field research. He observed that although San Francisco offered more than 120 reentry programs, none of them spoke to the needs of older formerly incarcerated men, especially African-American men, who often returned home to the Bay Area with insufficient skills and few age-related resources. His dissertation evaluated the efficacy of local reentry programs from the viewpoint of older clients; his findings indicated that returning citizens felt decidedly underserved.

“You’ve got to be 62 to get social security,” Williams points out. That’s a problem for incarcerated people, who typically age far faster than their biological age. “Consider a 50-year-old person, incarcerated, sleeping on a top bunk. They may have arthritis or emphysema. They may have been alcoholics on the street. And then they’re being programmed the same way as [younger prisoners], who they can’t keep up with. They have different medical needs and they have different stress levels than the youth.”

Some examples of this disconnect might include being guided to jobs in construction or food service, which returning seniors often can’t handle physically, or being placed in housing situations with younger people, where they are vulnerable to bullying. Older people, Williams says, also need much more assistance than younger in navigating technology, from automated phone calls to email. Lack of digital savviness creates barriers to all aspects of contemporary life.

Williams also found that case management offering one-on-one assistance worked best for older clients. Using this information, Williams developed a holistic approach for his team, one that deals specifically with the needs of returning senior citizens in relation to housing, employment, substance abuse, mental health and disability.

In 2017, Williams passed the torch to Ceyante Pennix, a younger colleague who has worked her way up from an administrative assistant to a case management supervisor over the course of 11 years. Today, as SEOP director, Pennix manages three clean and sober living environments ( a form of certified transitional housing) and six case managers.

Though in her early 30s, Pennix bonds easily with her older clients. Like many of them, Pennix spent much of her youth in San Francisco, including time in custody. The same is true for most of her team. The shared experience matters.

“Our population has a hard time taking [advice] from people that haven’t gone through what they have, ” she says. “Never been homeless, never been on drugs, never been incarcerated. They can read between the lines. Having someone who has changed their life around, and can relate to them, is important.”

Under her management, SEOP focuses on positive outcomes beyond reducing recidivism, and building relationships with their clients who, Penninx says, are welcome “to engage with the program for life.”

“We become like family,” Pennix says, which is often hard. Pennix has had four clients die of age-related illness just this year.

The SEOP offices, a part of Bayview Senior Services.

Success, Pennix says, looks different for every client. Her goal is getting people to what she calls a maintenance stage.

“A client who had addiction issues and went into residential treatment and stayed clean. That’s success. A client that meets the requirements of their probation. A client who follows through on opportunities,” Pennix says. “Any client who follows through is a success. “

Some clients stop by the offices to get support in finding housing or employment. Others need help saving money or getting a ride to their doctor’s appointments. Pennix and her team even help with smaller issues, which she says increases the likelihood of being able to intervene during a crisis.

“We may make sure they don’t get scammed on the internet, or help set up their debit card,” Pennix says. “It can be any little thing. Referring them somewhere to get assistance when their power gets cut off. That’s often the sign that they’re trying to maintain what they have. It’s when their lights get cut off and they no longer care that it’s an issue.”

Focusing on San Francisco County Jails

The SEOP team accepts walk-ins several days a week from its Bayview office. They also coordinate services by correspondence for a handful of individuals preparing for release from state prison to San Francisco County. But SEOP’s current primary focus is on elders exiting the San Francisco county jails, who have typically served shorter sentences than counterparts in the state prison system. Both populations share similar post-release challenges — loss of family networks, health complications, and difficulty finding work. But those exiting the county jail system after shorter sentences typically receive less therapeutic programming while incarcerated, and often need greater support to deal with mental health and addiction issues upon their release.

Since 2013, the SEOP offers case management at the Adult Probation Department’s Community Assessment Service Center, a one-stop reentry site located around the corner from the San Francisco’s downtown Intake and Release Center.

Even more recently, the SEOP has partnered with the Sheriff’s Department to provide services inside all San Francisco County jails. It was spurred on by the recommendation of the 2016 report Criminal Justice-Involved Older Adults in Need of Treatment (COJENT), supervised by Dr. Brie Williams, a Geriatrician and Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. The project identified gaps in service for older adults involved in the criminal justice system, and made recommendations for a more effective community response. Among other things, the report identified a lack of widely available reentry planning specific to the unique needs of older adults in San Francisco County.

“There’s no forced treatment here, no heavy pressure … If you want to get a job, or go to school and get a degree, you have the time to go do it. They support you in what you are doing. If you want help, they help, if you want to do it alone, fine. And if you’re about to crash and burn, they step in.”

Above: The Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center, home of the Senior Ex-Offenders Program (SEOP).

Ali Riker says the Sheriff’s Department decided to address this gap by contracting with SEOP to provide in-house case management and support groups for older adults housed in the jail’s veterans and reentry pods, designated housing units that allow older individuals with similar backgrounds to receive specialized programming.

“We’ve done a lot of work since 2016, trying to make our reentry services more robust,” Riker says. “Our sheriff’s department also started a discharge planning office about a year and a half ago. That staff works closely with the older adult case manager.”

In addition to holding its support group, SEOP receives a list of individuals in jail custody age 55 and over, so they can prioritize who is about to be released. The list contains more than 100 names on any given day. For those interested in becoming clients, SEOP offers assessment and social service referrals, and encourages them to work with a case manager to develop a reentry plan.

These plans, Pennix says, can involve anything from getting a state ID or birth certificate to securing housing and employment upon release.

“There’s so many things that come up with this population of people. Everybody’s struggle is different,” she says. “We help give them a kind of vision, and create a plan that they can follow and start doing it inside, so they can be productive as they pave the way forward.”

“For those who want to program it’s easier, Pennix says. “For those that don’t, it’s a little hectic. Part of the work is just getting them to know that somebody cares about them. That they’re not alone.”

Creating Supportive Transitional Homes

Even the best-made pre-release plans can fall apart without stable housing. SEOP contributes in a modest way to this enormous need by managing three transitional houses in Bayview, which accommodate up to 28 clients. They are one of the six housing programs funded by the San Francisco Department of Probation, which together provide 177 beds to returning citizens. Clients commit to at least a 90-day stay but are welcome to remain in residence for up to 24 months. On average, clients live in transitional housing for about a year while they search for more permanent homes. In exchange for a weekly house meeting and light chores, residents in the three SEOP houses receive deeply subsidized rent and a hot meal five days a week.

One of the transitional houses is a Spanish-style bungalow a few blocks away from the SEOP office, where Lance Gardner serves as house manager. The 60-year-old ironworker and former Coast Guard member had been a resident in the county jail’s veterans and elder pod when SEOP started their in-house program. He became an active participant in case manager Antoinette Ivy’s support group. And as he prepared for his release in June 2019, Gardner turned to SEOP to help him find housing.

Gardner left custody once before, from San Quentin State Prison, in 2010. In this previous homecoming, he self-paroled to his mother’s house before spending six months at 111 Taylor Street, a city-run residential reentry center in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood. Neither place was right for him at the time. His family environment didn’t provide the necessary focus. And while he appreciated the wide slate of services provided at the Taylor Street residence, he was unhappy about the constant drug use and crime he found at his front door. “I told Antoinette I wanted to be somewhere residential,” Gardner says.

Prior to his 2019 release, Ivy secured Gardner an open bed in his current residence. The area, Gardner says, is clean and safe, and the neighbors are pleasant. He was able to bike a short distance to Bayview’s warehouse district, where he quickly found a welding job. When the work became too taxing for Gardner, who has degenerative joint disease, he made the change to janitorial work. Less physically demanding and fewer hours, the new job allowed him to pursue his educational and therapeutic goals. Gardner attended near daily AA meetings, as well as weekly men’s support groups. He started guitar lessons and made plans to return to San Francisco City College to complete his bachelor’s degree in mechanical and civil engineering.

Gardner likes SEOP’s flexible and supportive approach, which suits his desire for autonomy as well as the needs of residents who like more supervision. “There’s no forced treatment here,” he says, “no heavy pressure. You have the latitude to pursue what you want to do. If you want to get a job, or go to school and get a degree, you have the time to go do it. They support you in what you are doing. If you want help, they help, if you want to do it alone, fine. And if you’re about to crash and burn, they step in.”

From left: SEOP's Steven Clark, Ceyante Pennix, Antoinette Ivy, Amica Nelson and Michael Pasley; seated in front is client Eric Neely.

The program stepped in for Gardner on September 6, when he was hit by a truck while crossing Mission Street, and sustained serious injuries. “It disrupted my whole life, everything I was doing,” Gardner says. Now recovering from major surgery, Gardner credits his ability to cope to his case manager, who drives him to doctor appointments, helps him pick up his medications, and generally keeps his spirits up. “Antoinette has been my compass. She keeps me pointed in the right direction,” Gardner says.

Gardner’s situation underscores the need for more than traditional transitional housing. Formerly incarcerated seniors would benefit from access to supportive living environments that can accommodate residents over longer periods of time, even as their health-related needs change. “It’s good to have transitional housing,” Cathy Davis says, “but as a transition to what?”

Davis would like to see a wider variety of long-term housing options open for older returning citizens so that they can “age in place.” A good model is the Bayview Senior Services’ newest facility, the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Residence. The sprawling campus contains 120 apartments and a community center, which offers meal service and programming for residents and the wider Bayview senior community. Since it opened in 2016, demand for units has been high. The center received over 4,000 applications. Only a few SEOP clients were among those offered a permanent home in the building.

The likelihood of new housing projects in the near future is slim. In the meantime, SEOP does whatever it can to keep their clients, as Wendell El-Amin James puts it, from “being shoved out of their neighborhoods and relocated because they can’t afford to be there.”

“We want to help people along the way, for the rest of the time they’re here,” he says, “to try to live the best way they can.”

Pennix agrees. “If you did your time, this is your time to live now,” she says. “I’m really serious about the population we’re working with. I always hope they can turn their lives around. It’s just never too late.”

Kate McQueen is a freelance writer and instructor at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her reporting on criminal justice has appeared in San Quentin News, Wall City, and WILL (NPR).

Eddie Herena was the staff photographer for the only inmate-run newspaper in California, the San Quentin News. His work has been published in various publications including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Athletic and San Francisco Chronicle. He was recently featured on the San Francisco Foundation website, a non-profit dedicated to social justice.