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Previewing the 2014 Hunger Report, Part Four
Dominic Sr. is the director of the HELP program in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program works with men who are ex-offenders – “returning citizens,” as they prefer to call themselves – to help them cope with the difficulties they face in trying to integrate back into their communities and find jobs.
I am pleased to say that I got the ball rolling on the cover shot by writing about the HELP program in the 2014 Hunger Report. Joe traveled to Cincinnati at my suggestion to take pictures and make a short film about the men in the HELP Program. The film will be up on the Hunger Report website beginning November 25, the same day we launch the report.
Initially, I came to the HELP Program to talk with Dominic and other returning citizens about food stamps (now SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). In some states, federal law prohibits some returning citizens who would be eligible based on their incomes from receiving food stamps/SNAP benefits. Because states have the option of waiving or modifying the federal law, it does not apply in all states. Ohio is one of those that waived the law. I met with members of the HELP program because I wanted to hear from them how SNAP benefits made a significant difference in helping them with their transition back into society.
One of the men I met is named TJ, short for Terry Jones. At 41 years old, TJ decided for the first time to apply for SNAP benefits. He’d been eligible for benefits based on his income for most of his life, but he said he never considered applying because he was too proud. When he was a kid, his father told him there were three things a man should never do: pawn possessions, sell his blood, or use food stamps. TJ changed his mind about food stamps because of his own kids. Once he got out of prison, he wanted to help make sure they got enough to eat. That was his job as their father, the way he explained it to me. The SNAP benefits aren’t enough to feed him and the children together, but they help family members avoid some of the gnawing hunger they face at the end of each month.
When you talk to returning citizens about the difficulties of reentry, you realize very quickly that being released from prison doesn’t mean the end of their punishment. For example, the risk of being homeless is high. Family and friends may want to help by offering the recently-released person a place to live, but the law prohibits anyone who receives federal housing assistance from doing this. Getting caught flouting the law means that they could lose their housing assistance and possibly become homeless themselves.
Legal restrictions on SNAP, housing assistance, and other benefits mean that the family members of returning citizens – including children – are punished alongside them. In 2012, there were more than 800,000 parents serving time in prison, more than 80 percent of them fathers. When they’ve finished serving their sentence, they will return to their communities. I think most will feel the way TJ does – obliged to do what they can to feed their children.
People who are already severely disadvantaged face daunting obstacles in adjusting to life outside prison. One of the reasons recidivism rates are so high in the United States is the combination of laws such as these with the difficulty ex-offenders have in finding jobs. For instance, it is common for job applications to ask applicants whether they have ever been convicted of a felony. The bias against those who check “yes” is palpable. Perhaps it is a prospective employer’s right to ask such a question, but my point here is that someone returning from prison faces extraordinary difficulties. It takes strength to persevere when it feels as though the odds are overwhelmingly against you.
Marquez McCoy is another man in the HELP Program that I met. There is no mistaking Marquez for a man who can’t work. A small, muscular guy in his early 30s, he looks like a boxer – a welterweight. For most of his adult life, he’s been trying to dodge one knockout blow after another. Less than a month before I met him, he’d been turned down for a job working in the storeroom at a casino. People get passed over for jobs all the time – it was how it happened this time that illustrates the ongoing challenges that the men in the HELP Program, and every other returning citizen, face.
Marquez made a strong impression on the manager of the storeroom. He was up front about his past, and the manager was willing to give him a try. He too was up front with Marquez and told him that the Human Resources department might not be as open to hiring someone with a criminal record. To boost his chances, the manager asked Marquez to provide five letters of recommendation instead of the usual three. Marquez did him two better and provided seven letters, including one from a judge. Late on a Friday, Marquez got a call from the manager of the storeroom, not to offer him a job but to apologize because the HR department had turned him down because of his felony conviction.
It was the closest Marquez had come to getting a job in more than a year, and when it fell through he plunged into a severe depression, convinced he was never going to make money except by going back to what he did before going to prison – selling drugs. The men in the HELP Program worked with him, lifting him out of the depression, until the temptation to go back on the street and hustle subsided.
Marquez entered the drug world, like so many kids from his community, about the time he was old enough to realize the smallness of his world compared to that of other kids. In grade school, he liked to learn and had good grades. When he was 13, he had a summer job with the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative that included cleaning schools in more privileged areas of the city. He saw what those schools looked like compared to his. In his neighborhood, most parents don’t finish high school, so the only education they can offer their kids was how to survive on the street. By the age of 13, Marquez knew all he needed to know to take home $500 a week in the drug trade. He could buy lunch for himself and anybody else he wanted to. Free lunches in the cafeteria stopped being a reason to come to school.
Mike Murphy, the executive director of the HELP Program, says the state of Ohio spends $42,000 a year to house and feed someone who is incarcerated. This cost to society should warrant more of an investment in a person’s transition back into the community – and repealing laws that prohibit family and friends from helping ex-offenders get back on their feet would cost nothing.
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