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Outreach aids former inmates struggling to find housing, jobs

Akua Zenzele, a community supervision agent in Southeast Baltimore who works with parolees, knows the first few days after being released from incarceration are crucial for former inmates.

Many are paroled with few resources and nowhere to go. Some end up homeless, and without a way to meet basic needs; others wind up back in jail after committing new crimes just to get by. Zenzele, whose job is to monitor those on parole and probation, has seen the cycle play out before.

When she found out that one of her clients was living in a homeless shelter, she decided to try a new strategy to help people get settled as soon as possible. Zenzele and her fellow agents spent a month raising money to provide their clients with toiletries, snacks and office supplies.

Zenzele and her co-workers say they're doing what they can to help get their clients through the difficulties of rehabilitation. Every little bit helps, she said, as the region struggles to reduce the number of homeless former inmates.

"We want to be the example," she said. "We hope other agents will do the same."

There are no reliable estimates of how many homeless people have been in jail or prison, but advocates say it's a major problem in Baltimore. A criminal history can create barriers to finding a job or housing, and many of those people are also battling addiction or mental illness.

City officials recognize homelessness among inmates as a serious problem, said Renard Brooks, re-entry coordinator with the Mayor's Office of Human Services. He said the city is finalizing a program to make an additional 200 housing vouchers, an increase of 40 percent, available for ex-offenders who are homeless and suffer from a mental or physical illness or substance abuse.

Sabree Akinyele runs Our Daily Bread Employment Center in Baltimore, which serves hot meals and helps homeless men find housing and jobs. The center is surrounded by five correctional institutions, she said, and newly released inmates often leave those facilities and walk across the street into her center.

Karen Heyward-West, program manager for employment services and client services at the center, estimated that 80 percent of the people she sees are homeless and have previously been incarcerated.

About 6,100 offenders whose primary conviction came from a Baltimore court were released from Maryland state prisons in fiscal year 2012, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Across the country, between 650,000 and 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year, and about 9 million people are released from jails, said Leah Kane, deputy program director of the National Reentry Resource Center.

The reasons for homelessness vary. Sometimes, people who have housing before entering prison or jail don't upon release because their relationships with the people they were living with suffered during their incarceration, Kane said.

For others, the situation can be more complex. Several experts mentioned the cyclical nature of incarceration and housing instability, saying that many people who are chronically homeless and filter in and out of the criminal justice system also have a history of mental illness or substance abuse. It can be hard to address those problems when a person doesn't have reliable housing.

People are less likely to attend treatment programs or look for a job if they're worried where they're going to sleep that night, Kane said. And when people don't have housing, they tend to fall back on old patterns.

Andy McMahon, with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, an organization that works to develop affordable housing options for vulnerable populations, called housing "a linchpin to all these other things that are important."

Last week, the Southeast Baltimore supervision agents assembled 50 bags to give to their clients — a first step in providing some relief from what they acknowledge is a persistent problem. ShaQuetta Nottage, a supervisor, said she wanted to have enough supplies on hand to be able to immediately step in during a crisis. A person might be fine now, she said, but something could happen tomorrow that threatens that stability.

As she helped load bags, Joy Williams, a supervision agent, said she thought the gift would be a source of encouragement for former inmates who are struggling as they readjust to life outside jail or prison. And, she added, giving something back to the community helps put a different face on an agency that's often seen as tough and unsympathetic.

"We want people to be able to know we are very much concerned," she said.

amatas@baltsun.com

twitter.com/AlisonMatas

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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