Job application image from Shutterstock.
On Wednesday morning, I met a guy named Mike while walking down the street in Shaw. Our short interaction opened my eyes to a number of obstacles, both personal and institutional, that stand between leaving prison and entering back into society.
As a conversation starter, he flagged me down to ask me where I got my sport jacket. “Actually, it’s from a local DC company, Hugh & Crye. They’re down in Navy Yard by the baseball stadium.”
"Man, I don’t know where anything is now. I just got outa jail yesterday. Been in for 22 years and everything looks different now. Hugh & Crye. Do you know if they have any jobs?”
From there, he told me how he’s been up since 6 am going around to grocery stores and other businesses putting in job applications, and has been staying at a friend’s place since he’s, as he put it, “basically homeless.” He went on to tell me that he’s hungry but didn’t have any money to get anything, and asked if I’d help him get something to eat.
Now, I gotta be honest, in situations like these where I’m confronted by someone who I don’t know asking for something, most of the time I say “not today” or “I don’t have anything on me, sorry” and walk away. So this isn’t some “I’m so great post.” And to be honest again, my first response when he told me he was a returning citizen looking for a job was “I bet there are organizations out there who can help out”, not “let me see what I personally can do to help.”
But there we were, on my street corner, me with a little unscheduled time and Mike looking for help. Me with a smart phone and a nice jacket and resources. Mike, a really nice guy who clearly just needed someone to pay attention. Mike with no phone, but an email address he could use from a friend’s computer.
"How about this. I’ll give you my phone number and email address, but I don’t have a pen and paper on me, but I bet they have some at the coffee shop down the street. And we can pick up a sandwich or something there, too.”
So we walked down to Compass Coffee. On the way, I paused to tweet out asking for recommended organizations, people, and entities that might be able to help a guy like Mike.
When we got to Compass, I picked up on the fact that he didn’t think he should come inside but brushed that off because, well, why shouldn’t he? He was going to be a customer.
Maybe it was my ignorance, but nothing in there seemed that recognizable (understandable after so long in incarceration), so he opted not to get anything. But I was able to get my contact info to him, and upon rechecking Twitter, saw a bunch of tweets and private messages offering up organizations, agencies, and direct contacts who might be helpful resources for Mike.
Of course, me spouting off a list to someone without a phone and without much in the way of internet resources wasn’t going to be all that helpful. Earlier he had mentioned that he didn’t have any money to put on his Smart Trip to get around to look for jobs or to go to the appropriate agencies to get his birth certificate and social security card, which he needs for almost anything post-incarceration (I had no idea this might even be an issue before he brought it up, but making sure returning citizens have those before being released would be so helpful). So we started walking toward the Metro and I got on the phone with DC Central Kitchen and the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs.
A little pause — one thing that got to me during this whole interaction was the fact that this guy had been in jail for so long, so it was like being in a different city and different era entirely. When I started instinctively starting the Smart Trip process, he stopped me to ask a question and I realized that even something like adding money to a Smart Trip was something he was learning for the first time.
Anyway, I had great conversations with both DC Central Kitchen and the returning citizens office, both of which were amenable to helping. DC Central Kitchen even set up an appointment for Mike to come in to learn about their programs and resources.
We were just getting ready to head down to the Department of Health to pick up a copy of his birth certificate, when he realized he had to get to another interview down in Navy Yard for a maintenance job that he applied for yesterday. So we quickly went up to the Shaw Library to write down the info for the DCCK appointment, then parted ways.
I hope Mike gets back in touch with me, mostly because I know there are even more resources I can connect him with (thanks everyone for the Twitter response!). I know he has limited options for doing so, and it sounds like he has a supportive supervision officer who is helping manage his return to society. I don’t know what he did, but he said because he had gotten a life sentence (not sure the circumstances of his release) that he was going to have supervision at various levels for the rest of his life, too.
The reason I wanted to share this isn’t because I did anything spectacular, but because in just 30 minutes I learned an incredible amount (I was starting from zero) about what it might be like to be a returning citizen, about the resources that are out there, and about what might make for a more supportive release environment for returning citizens. In 30 minutes. And I’m sure I still barely know anything.
As someone who is pretty interested in DC and figuring out what could be done better and about the experiences of all kinds of people and organizations and businesses, even those 30 minutes helped expand my world a little bit. I hope this is a little window for any of you who are interested as well.
If you’re interested in working with returning citizens as a mentor, please email firstname.lastname@example.org at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Also, a version of this post originally ran on the author’s Facebook page.