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America imprisons more people than any other nation. And for those who get released after a long sentence, re-entry can be tough, especially finding affordable, stable housing. Housing is often one of the biggest barriers to ex-inmates finding a decent job and getting their life back on track. Well, one group here in California is trying to change that with a first-of-its-kind program. You might call it Airbnb for the formerly incarcerated. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
JASON JONES: I'm bored to death. So if I can work - if I can actually...
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's a Friday night. Jason Jones is kicking back on a couch in his Oakland apartment with roommate Tamiko Panzella. They're laughing about how Tamiko recently duped him into what he thought would be a regular gym workout.
JONES: I was like - oh, she got me into yoga. She tricked me (laughter).
WESTERVELT: What made it really jarring - this was Jason's first full day free after serving 14 years in California prisons.
JONES: You know, got me in my downward dog - you know, that's like the one position you don't want to be in in prison (laughter). Like, the first - the second day out. (Laughter) I mean. And I look over there; she's dying laughing. And I'm just like - aw, man, this is not good (laughter).
WESTERVELT: Laughing about a workout that wasn't - it's all normal, life-with-roommates kind of stuff. But all this is a new normal for the 35-year-old who grew up in and out of foster care and group homes. In America today, most of those getting out of prison after a long sentence are offered some kind of transitional housing that often involves communal living in cramped quarters with other ex-convicts. There are usually curfews, limits on visitors and other prison-like rules and restrictions. But this pilot program has none of that. Called the Homecoming Project, Tamiko and her boyfriend Joe Klein are sharing their apartment with Jason. And his rent is paid for by the nonprofit group Impact Justice. Call it the social justice sharing economy.
ALEX BUSANSKY: The Homecoming Project says you're a person, and we're gonna treat you like a person. And we're going to give you the footholds and the scaffolding you need to be able to come back home and to be a full member of society, just like anybody else.
WESTERVELT: That's Alex Busansky, Impact Justice's president. The former Justice Department lawyer looked at the landscape and saw a huge need and nothing innovative out there for former inmate housing. The group carefully screens both home host and ex-inmate to make sure it's a good housing match. There's also training and follow-up support. The experiment launched just a few months ago with six former inmates paired with local families around the Bay Area. Busansky says one of the biggest obstacles to expanding - finding enough hosts.
BUSANSKY: There's fear. There's apprehension. There's a sense of the unknown. And so it's hard to tell people - this is a great idea, and you should go to try it; bring a stranger getting out of prison into your home - not a conversation that most people are used to having.
WESTERVELT: But it's a conversation Busansky thinks America has to have, especially now as a bipartisan national movement tries to unwind decades of drug war-fueled mass incarceration.
Jason's path to prison is a familiar one - absent parents, in and out of trouble with police, in and out of foster and group homes starting at age 8.
JONES: All the households I've been in consist of some kind of abuse, either mentally, verbally, physically, whatever it was - or some kind of drug use in the household. Like, horrible experience - like...
WESTERVELT: He joined a gang at age 11. Eventually, Jason served 14 years in prison for felony charges, including assault with a deadly weapon. He was 20. Jason learned to code in prison, so he had a software job waiting for him when he got out. But he didn't have a home. So when he faced his release date, he worried the Homecoming Project was some kind of adult foster care, another dead end. But after living with Tamiko and Joe for a few months, Jason says it's really the only stable home he's ever known.
JONES: It's first time I, like, I seen healthy relationship - like, being in a household with a healthy relationship. It's the first time I've felt like I'm actually part of a family, you know what I mean? Like - so...
WESTERVELT: That's a big deal.
JONES: It is. And this is, like, a lot of things I didn't expect.
WESTERVELT: Jason reunited with his son and a daughter, but he's still trying to reconnect and get custody of another daughter who's now in foster care. It's complicated. It's hard. But Tamiko and Joe, with support from Impact Justice, have helped him navigate it all. Tamiko says she feels like Jason has helped me as much as I've helped him.
TAMIKO PANZELLA: I think we just have a really strong friendship. You know, I don't feel like I'm helping a stranger. You know, I feel like I just have a friend, roommate. Like, I feel kind of weird even saying that we're in a program because it doesn't really feel like that.
WESTERVELT: It just feels, she says, like life.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland.
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