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New NetWork aiming to mainstream former prisoners and addicts

An organization trying to help at-risk men fresh out of prison or treatment is celebrating some milestones.The NetWork for Better Futures now has 31 men in its program, which offers housing, jobs and a community setting for men who are on the fringe

An organization trying to help at-risk men fresh out of prison or treatment is celebrating some milestones.

The NetWork for Better Futures now has 31 men in its program, which offers housing, jobs and a community setting for men who are on the fringes — often the far fringes — of society, according to NetWork director Steve Thomas.

Most of the men in the program have come straight from prison, although some are leaving treatment houses or halfway houses. Nearly all are black.

“The common theme is, these guys are on the margins, through their own behavior or addictions,” Thomas said.

NetWork offers housing, work prospects and community support
Founded by seven nonprofit agencies, all of which have some dealings with this troubled population, the NetWork offers housing, work opportunities and a community setting to get these men back into the mainstream. The goal is to keep them out of prison, off welfare, out of the emergency rooms for routine health problems; in short, back into the mainstream. Specifically, the group’s goals call for:

• Reducing frequent use of multiple systems, particularly health care and criminal justice.
• Increasing public safety and reducing criminal activity.
• Producing better physical and behavioral health for a highly vulnerable population.
• Achieving better, more cost-effective results from scarce public dollars.
• Increasing economic activity among some of our community’s poorest and most isolated people.
• Helping participants contribute to the healing and rebuilding of their communities and increase positive participation with their families.
• Informing other state and local policy reform efforts to integrate services and financing for high-risk, vulnerable people.

Launch lunch
The Minneapolis-based Network invited its partners and some key legislators and government officials to lunch last week to mark its first month of full operations and to note two funding sources: $1.6 million from the state Department of Corrections and a $2.8 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (Legislators had to pay for their own lunches — $10 – because of state lobbying laws.)

NetWork’s sponsoring groups are: Medica, NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, RS Eden, Summit Academy OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center), the Family Housing Fund, Turning Point and Twin Cities RISE! and its Awahli Program.

Timing is key
Thomas said the key to helping these men is to get them involved in the program immediately. “The first 72 hours are critical,” Thomas said. “The day they leave prison or treatment or halfway house, we’ll put them up in our guest house, where they can stay a few days until we can get them to their own apartment.”

The NetWork has a master lease on an 18-unit apartment building in Minneapolis, where the men are housed as soon as possible.

Then there’s the job component. To help them adjust to the workforce and to get them right to work while they’re looking for long-term employment, the NetWork runs two jobs programs: a work crew and a courier service. These offer only subsistence wages and are meant to be temporary while they seek long-term jobs. Some of their income — from the temporary or new, permanent jobs — goes to pay the rent.

The two businesses also are designed to help fund the program with any profits generated.

Men in the NetWork program also receive a rent subsidy that declines over time. At first, the client pays $200 a month for an apartment and the program pays the rest. After six months, that’s recalibrated, with a goal of no further subsidies, Thomas said.

Men coming out of prison have many challenges: Often, they can’t rent an apartment because owners screen new applicants and often won’t accept those with past legal problems. Finding jobs can be hard for the same reason. Managing its own apartment building and operating the two businesses help the NetWork overcome both problems, Thomas said.

Of the 31 men now in the program, one is Latino, three are American Indian and the rest are African-American, Thomas said.

He expects to add eight to 10 men a month; a new contract with Hennepin County this summer will add even more.

The men in the program must have a willingness to change, Thomas said. “They must be motivated to get back in the mainstream. In some ways, we’re very old school; this is not a ‘program’ or a charity. There are no mandates, but if you choose to take part, we have high expectations of you. The assistance must be earned.”

To learn more

What: The NetWork for Better Futures
Where: 1017 Olson Memorial Highway, Minneapolis, MN  55405
Phone: 612-455-6133, ext. 102