As often as I can, I try to carve out time weekly to meet with tenants who are seeking employment. In the population I am serving, folks are unemployed or underemployed. Many of the folks I work with carry barriers to employment that make it impossible for them to work. These barriers can be physical, mental, or emotional disabilities, and a large majority of barriers this community faces, stem from extensive criminal backgrounds. I have found in working with individuals on job applications and budgeting, folks do not enjoy living off of (essentially, scraping by) social security or social security disability benefits. These small safety nets were not created to provide for a thriving life—they help you survive, at most. There is little opportunity to save, to advance, or to obtain self-sufficiency when your monthly income is subsidized by a strict institution and the majority of your check goes straight to living costs (rent). Social programs are a blessing to many in need, but rarely solve the root issues of generational poverty that make social mobility impossible to achieve.
I have worked with a tenant for a few months now, not doing much direct job seeking work with him, but consistently checking in and following up with him on job leads and interviews. This person has lived an interesting life. The majority of the work experience listed on his current resume includes the addresses for federal and state prisons, as well as the corresponding Department of Corrections contact information (I have found that when Human Resources staff have to call the DOC for reference checking, they become a little hesitant in the hiring process.)
For the last 16 years, this man has been incarcerated. He spent a short year in jail 1984-1985 for a possession charge, was incarcerated in state prison from 1986-1991 for a distribution charge, spent some time in the world, and then returned for a 10 year stint in federal prison in 2000 for a slew of drug related crimes—he is the poster child for recidivism. Since his release a few years ago, this man has been actively engaged in treatment for his addiction, support services for his severe mental illness diagnosis, and has naturally developed into a fierce advocate for treatment and support services in the Tucson area. He leads a peer support group every Tuesday evening, attends trainings regularly that help him advance in his advocacy work, and co-directs trainings to law enforcement in the Tucson area for better routine practice when responding to individuals who suffer with mental illness. This man is a wonderful example of the power of extensive and engaged rehabilitation—not the fails of punitive justice.
At 55 years old, covered in tattoos from neck to toes, last week I was able to sit with him and congratulate him on his first legal, safe, accredited, and regularly paying employment in 16 years. He handed me his official job offer paperwork, of which he had already made 15 copies to distribute to his mentors/advocates out of pride and excitement. We took time and discussed what his next steps were to prepare for his training the following week. We talked about how he felt empowered, how valued he felt, and how excited he was to give back to clients who are living in a similar way as he was 16 years earlier. We talked about the fact that this is the job he eventually wants to retire from, and that he never thought he would say the words “retire.” We talked about the importance of budgeting for needs vs. wants, we talked about what clothing he would need to feel comfortable and professional, and we talked about positive coping strategies that needed to become a staple to maintain sobriety and protect his work-life balance. This man is a recovering heroin addict and dealer—the behavior that ultimately lead to both of his periods of incarceration--in times of stress, he would cope with the short lasting, but destructive high of heroin.
This is a man who lived through a brutal childhood, was pushed to a hard life of survival, spent 19 solid months in solitary confinement, and is coming out on the other side, remaining engaged in his healing process. He is settled, he is sober, and he is striving to be better. I know for a fact that my three months knowing him had an extremely small, almost irrelevant impact on his success—but being able to witness his growth, and his emerging confidence in this process was something that I will never forget. Every week when we would meet we would talk about what a particular interview felt like, who he had thanked and followed up with, what additional documents or steps he had to perform to meet a potential employer’s needs. This all seemed like normal job seeking behavior to me, but was completely new to him. And he did it, gracefully.
Now that his home is secure, he is able to continue on building his life. The apartment he is currently living in is the first place that he has been able to truly call his own in a long time—it is not a federal or state prison cell, it is not a half-way house, or a residential treatment program—it is his home.