For someone getting out of prison, one of the biggest challenges is finding somewhere to live—especially in an ultra-expensive housing market such as the Bay Area. A Bay Area-based program called the Homecoming Project offers an alternative to the usual listings on Craigslist: It links former prisoners with homeowners who have spare rooms, and it covers the first six month’s rent.
“Imagine you’ve been in prison for more than 10 years,” says Alex Busansky, president of Impact Justice, an organization focused on finding ways to improve the justice system, which created the program. “And now, suddenly, you are being released. You have a day or two, maybe hours, to get ready for your release. And you’re given maybe $100, $200 when you go—and they say good luck. Off you go. You might have a parole officer, you might not. You might have a family to go back to, you might not. There’s a good chance you’re going to end up in a homeless shelter or on the street, or in transitional housing.”
The organization took inspiration from the sharing economy. “There are many communities, they can be black and brown communities, that are underserved by the sharing economy, specifically, Airbnb—people who own homes, have extra bedrooms, and would welcome somebody into their home getting out of prison,” Busansky says. “Particularly in our case, where we screen them in the matching processes.”
The program, which started as a pilot a couple of years ago in California’s Alameda County, works with people who have served at least 10 years in prison, recognizing that they’re the least likely to still have connections to friends or family who they can turn to. Impact Justice has full access to the former inmate’s records—screening out people with a “violent or aggressive history,” Busansky says—and also carefully screens potential hosts to find a good match.
Both parties talk on the phone before moving in together, and they have the option to end the arrangement if it doesn’t work out. When the new housemate arrives, they get a welcome kit with some basic supplies, and Impact Justice also helps coach participants as they look for jobs and ease back into civilian life. Homeowners in the pilot are paid $25 a day, or $750 a month; they also get a security deposit. “It is dramatically less expensive than other options available to people getting out of prison,” he says, noting that transitional housing, facilities where former prisoners live together, is particularly expensive.
Many people working in the justice system have been initially skeptical about the idea, Busansky says. “What has been eye-opening in this process is the way that the people behind the current system are so wedded to the current system,” he says. “The idea that the only option is a homeless shelter, or the only option is transitional housing.” But as the pilot has progressed, its success has helped make the case, both to those in the system and to homeowners who are considering participating.
So far, the organization has matched 24 former prisoners with local homeowners; 17 people have finished the six-month program or have been able to move out earlier after getting jobs. Now, with a new $2.5 million award from the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners and Wells Fargo, through a competition called the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge, the program will grow. The need is immense: More than 600,000 people are released from prison each year in the U.S., the country with the largest prison population in the world.