Philly’s Rolling Engagement Van Cuts Recidivism By Bringing Resources Where They’re Needed

Beyond offering services and resources, they’re careful to set up warm handoffs to follow-up services to make taking action easier.

Why Not Prosper's rolling engagement van

Rev. Michelle Simmons (far left) stands with members of her team in front of Why Not Prosper's rolling engagement van. (Photo courtesy of Simmons and Why Not Prosper)

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Faith Bartley was two weeks clean from an addiction to crack cocaine, alcohol and other drugs. It was then that the recovery house she was staying at in Philadelphia transitioned to an all-men’s facility, leaving her with nowhere to go.

That was October 2017. Until then, she had been in and out of prison several times. “When I did my first prison stint in the ‘90s, I sat in that prison cell and decided I was going to get my life right. But when I got out, the resources weren’t visible,” Bartley says. “So guess what happened? I got discouraged and went back to what was familiar.”

Even then, six and a half years ago, she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to stay clean. But Bartley was still willing to try. That’s what led her to Why Not Prosper, a Philly nonprofit devoted to providing previously incarcerated women with the support they need to help address one slice of the U.S.’s roughly 70% recidivism rate.

One of the major driving factors for recidivism in the United States is a lack of resources to help formerly incarcerated people reenter and integrate into their community. This lack of resources comes largely in the form of unemployment tied to a disconnect between job skills that have evolved during incarceration, financial precarity, unstable housing, and unresolved trauma.

“The reason so many go back is because they’re not ready to face their trauma,” explains Rev. Michelle Simmons, who founded Why Not Prosper 23 years ago and is a formerly incarcerated person herself. Since its founding, the organization has served about 1,700 women.

“It’s because of the guilt, shame, and pain that they’re holding in their body,” she says. “Why Not Prosper offers women supportive services in line with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If people don’t know where they’re going to sleep or what they’re going to eat, it’s hard for them to really become successful or productive members of society.”

Why Not Prosper's rolling engagement van

(Photo courtesy of Simmons and Why Not Prosper)

Thanks to Why Not Prosper, Bartley has stayed clean since then. Unlike most women who transition out of Why Not Prosper’s housing after six months to a year, she is still living in Why Not Prosper’s low-supervision housing. Most recently, as of January, she’s come on board as the organization’s operations director. Bartley also helped co-found its Sisters With a Goal (SWAG) initiative that serves as a social justice and advocacy arm.

To reach more women like Bartley, the nonprofit recently launched a Rolling Engagement Van (REV) earlier this year to better meet women where they are with the services and support they need to stay out of prison.

When selecting the RV that would become the REV, Simmons was careful to choose one that had a large table that could fold up or down depending on the day and a spacious back bedroom that could be converted into a storage room for supplies like clothes, snacks, hygiene kits, wound kits, Narcan and more.

Co-managed by Why Not Prosper and the Community Advisory Committee under the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge, it offers a rotating range of services depending on what and who from Simmons’ network is available at any given time as well as what the community’s needs are. This can mean setting up tables outside of the RV with hot food, bringing on a healthcare practitioner to administer HIV tests or vaccinations, or offering on-the-spot therapy and legal support.

“With the van, not only do we bring resources, but we give soft handoffs. It’s one thing for me to say, ‘Go to Career Link.’ It’s another to say, ‘Go to Career Link, be there at 10 a.m., and ask for Mr. Jones’ because I’ve already called Mr. Jones and told him I’ve got two ladies coming to see him,” Simmons says.

She describes the progression to offering mobile services as a no-brainer. She felt constrained by geographic area and a reliance on people coming to her rather than the other way around.

Simmons thinks about it this way: “What if somebody would have rolled up into the hood with some resources to get clean or get my kids back?” After describing the small geographical radius she operated in while struggling and using, Simmons wonders: “Would I have stayed out there for 15 years? Maybe not.”

To others who might want to replicate what the Rolling Engagement Van offers, Simmons’ advice is to have faith. “Sometimes we have great ideas, great visions, but we get bogged down with the how,” she says. “When I went into the lot, I didn’t have any money but I walked through it like I had a checkbook of money and was determined to get that thing.”

Fast forward a few weeks to a meeting she was in with an organization that had $250,000 of funding that needed to be spent by the end of the year. “I couldn’t get off mute quickly enough,” Simmons says.

“The number one thing is don’t worry about the how. Stick to the vision and believe that it could come to pass.”

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report,, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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