California Dreaming: The home-sharing economy is helping reform the criminal justice system and break the prison cycle

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) – Owning a home was a dream for Richard Cruz, but it didn’t come true for the usual reasons.

After 30 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16, Cruz was released in 2018 and was one of the earliest participants in the Homecoming Project, a re-entry program that facilitates the transition from prison to a normal life.

“I didn’t have all of the restrictions of the re-entry house I was in when I was first released and the constant threat of going back to prison. It changed the way I experienced freedom,” said Cruz.

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He found a job with the Ahimsa Collective and, with the help of a private donor, bought a house in Oakland that is now part of the Homecoming Project. It can accommodate up to four probation officers.

“The majority of our hosts believe in second chances and redemption,” said Terah Lawyer, who leads the project for Impact Justice.

In California, nearly a third of those released from prison are unemployed. Many also become homeless.

Homecoming Project is a solution inspired by home sharing services like Airbnb. The attorney said they are looking for homeowners with an extra bedroom ready to accommodate a former detainee. Impact Justice pays their housing costs for six months.

“One of our secret sauces is that hosts and participants choose each other. They talk about the home as it will be. They talk about the house rules, “said lawyer.

Traditional re-entry homes are much more restrictive, with some curfews or restrictions on family visits being introduced. Violating these house rules could bring the probation officer back to prison.

“Parole supervision can be a double-edged sword for some people,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “It can provide the kind of infrastructure and stability they need to keep them out of trouble. And for many other people it’s a trap. “

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A 2005 report found that 66% of those released on parole returned to prison within three years and 39% were sent back to prison for a technical or administrative violation.

The homecoming project gives layoffers more freedom and does not require them to get a job straight away.

“If you look beyond a person’s criminal record, you see someone who deserves a sense of humanity and an opportunity to give back to the community by being successful,” said attorney.

Anthony Ammons Jr. is one of Cruz’s new tenants. He spent 20 years in prison for murder and was released in April. He values ​​the chance to make a slow transition into a normal life.

“You allow me to take the time to see who I am out there,” said Ammons. “There is a person who grew up in prison, but there is also a grown man who has to learn this world.”

Playing basketball helps him find his new life. The approach works.

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Of the 50 people who went through the Homecoming project, none were sent back to prison.

“We train our hosts about post-incarceration syndrome. There are many things that people need to decompress from an institutionalized facility. You don’t have as many sights, smells, and interactions with people. So there are many things that our participants have to learn from scratch, “said lawyer.

It can be as simple as sleeping in a normal bed. It took Ammons several days to feel safe in a soft mattress after sleeping in a hard prison bed for decades.

“There is a national movement that recognizes the shortcomings of the status quo approach to criminal justice and calls for common sense reform,” said Boudin, whose office has several restorative justice programs aimed at reducing incarceration and relapse.

The Homecoming Project recently won the Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability and was awarded $ 2.5 million last year for its innovative approach to housing solutions.

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