As a teenager growing up in suburban Chicago, Patrick admittedly hung out with the wrong crowd, got into trouble frequently and began selling cocaine. He cycled through local jails at least 20 times, though he was never apprehended for the sale of drugs.
Patrick’s first serious offense came at the age of 30, when he was arrested for cocaine possession. By that time, he was using as well as selling. That led to the first of two trips to prison for drug possession.
The second time he was released, Patrick connected with the NetWork for Better Futures, a Minneapolis-based group that offers a comprehensive program to help ex-offenders re-enter society.
“It’s changed my life,” Patrick told the group. Now 41, he is drug-free, living on his own, working as a janitor for two local libraries and connecting with his two teenage sons. He recently spoke at a NetWork dinner about his successful transition.
“Re-entry is a misnomer,” says Steve Thomas, president of the NetWork. “Most of these men have never been a part of our world.” Thomas is a former assistant corrections commissioner for New York City who also has held executive positions with several housing agencies.
His group focuses on high-risk men, primarily African-Americans, who most often lack job, social and life skills, and are suffering the effects of chronic unemployment, substance abuse, violence, homelessness and other trauma in their lives.
While the NetWork recognizes that such individuals may have relapses, it works only with ex-offenders who are committed to change. It employs a 24-question evaluation tool to gauge that commitment.
The early results are promising. From 2008 through 2011, the group worked with 520 men. Of that total, 86 percent gained employment, 56 percent of those who owed child support made payments and just 8 percent who remained in the program for 90 days returned to prison for a new crime.
That compares with an overall recidivism rate of 26 percent for the state corrections system. And the cost of the NetWork program is only about half the cost of incarceration.
“Unfortunately, we have a revolving door in our corrections system – where people come out, they don’t do well and they go back,” says state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, a supporter of the NetWork program. “It costs a lot of money.”
The NetWork approach is distinguished by its comprehensive, integrated model. Each participant is assigned a life coach who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help him navigate the system, obtain critical services, reconnect with friends and family, and avoid relapses.
The program addresses four critical needs:
The NetWork has a 32-bed guest house where all new enrollees live for the first four to six months. They receive two meals a day, have access to laundry facilities, receive life skills training, perform chores and pay modest rent.
From there, enrollees must actively participate in the program and secure outside employment to “earn” the chance to rent an apartment that will be leased and subsidized by the program for up to 20 months.
But Thomas acknowledges even this may not be adequate to meet the long-term housing needs of this population. He says most landlords, including public housing authorities, simply will not lease to men with felonies or histories of violent offenses.
Better Futures Enterprises (BFE), the business arm of the organization, provides part-time, paying jobs for participants and helps generate income to support the program.
BFE started out providing work crews to local governments, nonprofit organizations and private sector employers in the Twin Cities. However, when much of this work dried up during the recession, BFE branched out into the waste diversion business, recycling appliances, mixed plastics, books, household goods and materials from buildings slated for demolition.
“We had to figure out how to keep these guys working,” Thomas says. “So many of our people have no work experience. That’s what this is all about.”
Typically, new participants rely on BFE for part-time work while they are enrolled in school or a job training program, and search for full-time work. But they also learn to show up for work on time, behave appropriately in a workplace setting, and complete a task well and on time.
The NetWork employs a wellness coordinator who helps all participants secure and maintain health insurance, connect with a primary care physician at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) and undergo behavioral health assessments.
One of the surprises for the NetWork staff: “Nothing prepared us for the level of mental illness we have seen,” says Makram El Amin, one of the program’s five life coaches. Of 40 participants who were referred to HCMC last year, 60 percent were diagnosed with mental health issues.
The trauma in their lives “has affected their ability to make the transition” and cope with the stresses of “living the new normal,” says El Amin.
The NetWork strives to create a network of community and family support for participants. It hosts group meetings twice a week – on Monday nights for guest speakers to share their expertise on personal growth, empowerment and related topics, and on Friday nights for personal check-ins, reflection and inspiration.
Twice a month, participants can invite their families to the guest house for community dinners intended to help rebuild family relationships.
Thomas and his staff don’t claim to have all the answers. They already have made several major revisions in the program, based upon what they have learned. “We don’t know half of what we need to know,” he says.
The NetWork staff also acknowledges that recovery is not a linear path, and that participants have their ups and downs. “We are like a soap opera,” Thomas says. “There are stories every day. There are some tragedies to be sure, but there are some shining success stories.”
Hennepin County District Judge Pamela Alexander, who serves on the NetWork board, says she is “very excited” about the program and its early success.
Alexander says many ex-offenders have difficulty obtaining housing or a job, often a condition of their release, and end up going back to prison. “I’m surprised they don’t all go back – given the challenges they face,” she says.
Now in its fifth year, the NetWork is attempting to get by with limited public funding. After receiving $3.7 million in state funding during its first four years, the program was zeroed out by the Legislature in the last biennium – a victim of state’s latest budget shortfall.
With the help of grants from the Robert Wood Johnson and Kresge foundations, the NetWork continues to enroll about 110 participants a year while remaining engaged with a like number who entered it previously.
Thomas believes BFE – the $1-million-a-year business arm of the organization – can become self-sustaining. But he is scrambling to fill a budget gap for housing and social services, which cost another $1.5 million a year.
To do so, Thomas is promoting the idea of funding the program through “pay for performance” contracts with counties, state agencies and health plans – funding the NetWork with some of the money it saves other agencies by keeping ex-offenders employed, out of prison, paying child support, and staying out of emergency rooms and detox centers.
The NetWork currently has a $300,000 pay for performance contract with Hennepin County. And it has joined with the county seeking a $750,000 federal grant that would build on the concept.
“We are not built to chase grants and appropriations,” Thomas says. “We are built to earn money by producing better results at a lower cost.”