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Ex-inmates helped craft blueprint for Stanislaus Homeboy Industries-inspired effort. What next?

Modesto Bee - 6/15/2023

Jun. 15—John-Austin Elwess, 29, is one of the former inmates who helped design a Stanislaus County program for people like him released from incarceration.

The Oakdale native said he didn't know how to get a driver's license again after his release from jail in June 2022. His family members let him stay with them for a month before they moved away. Not many people offered him help until his parole officer told him about another ex-inmate who's running an organization to support the formerly incarcerated to succeed outside prison walls.

Elwess attended classes to stay sober and learn personal finance and was referred to a therapist to help him deal with trauma. The organization, Legacy Alliance Outreach, found work for him as a mechanic and helped him find a small rental home in Hughson.

"We could do much greater things if we had the funding and they gave us the resources," Elwess said.

Elwess is one of 14 former inmates who worked on the design of the Homeboy Industries-inspired program for Stanislaus County. According to the planning team's recommendations, the program won't be part of the justice system. It will be staffed by people who were formerly incarcerated or in gangs. And the services will be in a building that doesn't look like a government structure.

The 18-month pilot program will be modeled after Father Gregory Boyle's work with gangs in Los Angeles, where participants get social support from people with the same background, as well as services for healing the whole person.

If it was Elwess' decision, the county would contract with Legacy Alliance to operate the progressive program. But the county needs to go through the procurement process, and it isn't clear who will manage Homeboy Stanislaus.

The county's version of a Homeboy Industries network cleared an initial hurdle June 6 when supervisors approved $1.5 million for a test program in the Public Safety Realignment plan annual budget.

Ruben Imperial, assistant county executive officer, said Monday the next step is a detailed proposal for implementing the program through the Public Defender's Office.

Public Defender Jennifer Jennison said Tuesday her office will put together a formal proposal for the pilot program based on the recommendations. She noted that counties must follow contracting rules, some of which could allow a sole-source contract with an organization like Legacy or require a competitive process.

Jennison said she likes the idea of putting the services under one roof and providing a welcoming environment. "It's also the idea that you receive services while working with people who have the same lived experience," she said.

Imperial said the procurement process includes assessing what organizations are currently providing these types of services and serving the priority population in Stanislaus County.

People from county departments, Focus on Prevention, Sierra Vista Children and Family Services, Love Stanislaus, Project Resolve and consulting firms spent months working with 14 adults, who served time in county and state correctional facilities, to come up with recommendations and a program design.

Kate Trompetter, a consultant who guided the planning effort, said the professionals on the planning team stepped back and let the former inmates design elements of the program.

The planning team conducted in-depth interviews, meetings and focus groups to understand the stigma and challenges of adults released from incarceration.

"The primary takeaways were the importance of community," Trompetter said. "Folks who have shared experience supporting each other in their recovery. ... It is going to be a government-funded program but we need to create a program that doesn't seem like government, because there is no trust."

According to the recommendations and a proposal issued by the planning group in March, former inmates talked about a justice system that, combined with homelessness and lack of employment, seems to set up the formerly incarcerated for failure.

Many need help in dealing with the trauma of gang violence or living behind prison walls. Their criminal records, tattoos and physical appearance undermine their employment prospects. And social isolation puts them at risk of recidivism.

Program will help former inmates adjust

To prevent a return to criminal life, the planners concluded that program participants will need positive social support from individuals from the same experience. They will need services to help them heal from trauma and to mature, and they will need employment opportunities and education.

The process will need to start before people are released from incarceration, the group concluded. The planning team also stressed the importance of steady employment for participants to boost confidence and introduce them to a new social circle with a positive influence.

The planning team proposes an 18-month pilot starting with 50 participants, which is a small percentage of incarcerated people released in the county every year. Priority would be given to men younger than 50 who were formerly incarcerated or involved with gangs. The numbers show that 85% of adults released from incarceration to the county since 2013 were males, but the program also will serve women, Imperial said.

A vibrant center for services

The recommendations favor locating the services in a single, high visibility center — not a government building. The planners envision a vibrant-looking, colorful center that draws people in.

Participants would have access to mental health and wellness services. Another priority would be job skills training and employment provided by partner industries in the community or social enterprises created onsite.

Boyle's Homeboy Industries is known for its "social enterprises," or in-house businesses that give immediate jobs to those starting the reentry program. The profits are committed to funding social services.

The recommendations also include support groups for addiction, domestic violence, trauma and anger management. Social groups would offer fun activities, outings and events.

"We think all the ingredients needed for this are in our community," Trompetter said.

County Supervisor Terry Withrow, a chief proponent of the program, has endorsed the nonprofit Legacy Alliance Outreach and its executive director, Michael Baldwin, to play a big role in running the Homeboy-inspired activities under a contract with the county. Legacy Alliance serves marginalized adults and young people and also is assisting formerly incarcerated adults with the transition to living in the community.

The planning team also recognized Legacy as a good fit for running the program. Legacy "has already begun the work of effectively engaging our priority population and has the beginning infrastructure and skill sets that makes them a high-leverage partner. With the proper support, they will be able to begin important work right away."

Jennison said counties must follow contracting rules, some of which could allow a sole-source contract with an organization like Legacy or require a competitive process.

Jennison said she likes the idea of putting the services under one roof and providing a welcoming environment. "It's also the idea that you receive services while working with people who have the same lived experience," she said.

What is the sheriff's opinion?

Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said Wednesday he liked the program proposal when it came across his desk.

"It's intriguing and I'm very optimistic it will prevent recidivism," Dirkse said. "Homeboy Industries (in Los Angeles) has been quite successful and effective. It's a great idea to get this out of the government system. It is a community-run (program) and I think that's also helpful."

Elwess said the hardest part of the journey since his release was finding housing. "Not only do people not want to rent to a felon, the housing market is insane," he said.

Some community partners are already involved with the proposed Stanislaus Homeboy program, including Center for Human Services, Sierra Vista, county Workforce Development, the county Probation Department, the State Theater, Valley First Credit Union and restaurant owner Ann Endsley, who has provided a building and has employed formerly incarcerated people.

Trompetter said she's not aware of a site that's being considered for the local program.

The program will rely on public funding to get started. But the program design also has a sustainability plan including a social enterprise that generates revenue, fund development, philanthropy and grant writing.

The planning team stressed the importance of professional development for program staff. While their lived experience is valuable, staff members will need expanded skill sets to provide effective counseling, program management, peer navigation, leadership and budget management.

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