Homecoming Project: Airbnb for those returning from prison

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Terri Brown, right, opened her home to KC Matthews, left, so he could rebuild his life after prison. Photo courtesy of Impact Justice.

(NewsNation) — For America’s prisoners, life behind bars often serves as poor preparation for their lives after being released from incarceration. Reentering society can be difficult, as ex-prisoners are often on their own when it comes to securing housing, employment and other necessities.

In prison, “Basically, all you’ve gotta do is stay alive, you know what I mean? And survive all the madness that goes on in there,” said a former prisoner named Marcus Nunn in a recent documentary. “You don’t have to pay bills. You don’t have to buy food. They feed you three times a day, even though the food is crap. But when you come back into society, this is the real world. All those things that you didn’t have to do for decades, now you have to do.”

But Nunn had help with his reentry from an Oakland-based nonprofit called Impact Justice. For the past four years, Impact Justice has been running the Homecoming Project, which aims to help ex-prisoners ease back into society.

“When people leave prison, they have very few options in terms of housing. Typically, housing is transitional housing or congregate care housing which can often feel like another extension of a carceral system where they have very few options and very freedoms, too, as they come back into the community,” said Aishatu Yusuf, who serves as the vice president of innovation programs at Impact Justice.

That’s where the Homecoming Project offers an alternative, paying homeowners to bring in someone newly released from prison or jail, similar to how guests pay to book a room in someone’s home through websites such as Airbnb.

“What we do is we take community homes — so if you have a room inside of your house that you will be willing to let us use, we pay you roughly $40 a day for up to six months to house a person leaving prison,” Yusuf said.

The subsidy, provided by the program, covers rent and utilities; it’s up to the participant and host to discuss how groceries and food purchases will be obtained.

The program allows participants to get access to safe and affordable housing in a pricy area where some housing advocates estimate that a renter would need an hourly income of $43.73 to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

The organization makes sure to screen homes before making placements. The screening process includes matching sessions where both hosts and potential guests get to know each other before housing arrangements are finalized. Once they reside in a home, participants are expected to look for employment and/or education.

After a resident is placed in a home, the Homecoming Project pairs them with a community navigator whose job it is to work with them in identifying any resources they need to smooth their re-entry into society. The community navigator will work to pair residents with, for example, employment or legal services.

Many traditional halfway homes are seen as an extension of the criminal justice system, where residents are often under strict surveillance and/or curfews. For Nunn, whose journey was documented by the German documentary television program Galileo, the experience in a Homecoming Project home was liberating.

In the documentary, he pointed to his pantry, microwave and stove.

“After eating prison food for 31 years, now to be able to prepare my own meals, you know, it’s truly a blessing,” he said.

Since its inception, the Homecoming Project has placed around 85 participants in homes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California.

For Yusuf, one of the program’s brightest spots has been how successful it has been in preventing reoffending by ex-prisoners.

“Our program has a zero percent recidivism rate,” she said, with the caveat that they haven’t yet tracked outcomes for residents two or three years after they’ve left the program.

Still, she noted that getting hosts to participate in the program can be a challenge.

“It’s a scary ask for letting someone into your personal space but also somebody who has a stigma for who they are,” she said.

To help recruitment efforts, the group has recently brought on a local marketing firm.

Like many nonprofit programs, the Homecoming Project is also constrained by the financial resources that are available to it. But the California legislature recently gave Impact Justice funding they hope will help expand the Homecoming Project to Los Angeles.

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