LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Leaving prison to enter a new life comes with a number of challenges, but those challenges are amplified if you don't have a place to call home. Now, those looking to turn their lives around are finding helping hands in the homes of complete strangers.
When Joey Pagaduan was sentenced to 29 years to life for second-degree murder, he came to terms with the fact that he may die in prison. But after he turned his life around while incarcerated, and started counseling others, Pagaduan was granted parole last year after serving 23 years. However, major hurdles remained.
"We say home because it's not prison, but for me, I didn't have a home. I was just going someplace else with more freedom," Pagaduan said.
That's when Pagaduan was placed into the Homecoming Project, matched with two people who he's lived with since January and now considers family -- Quian Wang and Robert Fletcher, who are married and live with their two children in Berkeley, California.
"People who have been incarcerated for long periods of time, if they're getting out of prison, they're taking it seriously. They don't want to go back. So, to some degree, they will be on their best behavior in a way that a normal roommate you get off of Craigslist is not going to be," said Fletcher.
The Berkeley couple had an extra room in their home and wanted to help address the housing crisis, which is exactly the mission of the homecoming project. Launched in 2018 by the Oakland-based nonprofit organization, Impact Justice, the program has already helped 100 formerly incarcerated individuals get back on their feet after serving lengthy prison sentences.
"Talk about defying the odds. Our participants, 100% of them, by the time they leave our program over the course of six months have been connected to affordable housing, 95% connected to employment opportunities and 0% of them have recidivated," said director of the Homecoming Project, Bernadette Butler.
"Rob was funny because when we were talking, he's like, no red flags, so I guess you're OK and I'm like, OK," said Pagaduan.
In July, Pagaduan graduated from the program, which lasts six months and he now works full-time as a case manager for the Homecoming Project, and fit in so well with his hosts that he still lives with them, renting a room paid for by the income he receives from his job.
For the length of the program, hosts receive a stipend of $45 a day, and while they are not required to spend time with the participants, many of them do.
"Invite participants to have dinner with them. Maybe they're taking them to a restaurant and showing them how to order from a menu," said Butler. "Some of our participants went into the system when they were teenagers and they were coming out as grown-ups who may not have ever lived with someone else, cooked a meal for themselves, and may not have ever been in a restaurant."
"And so our hosts are re-introducing them to society, smiling, asking them how their day was. Providing that soft landing for participants who don't want to re-commit crimes, be welcomed back to the community and do right after having been away for so long," Butler added.
"They have two wonderful children who I love very much," said Pagaduan.
"Our kids have said we want Joey to live here forever," said Wang. "Even if Joey isn't physically here, we're still going to see him a ton and that's not ever going to change."
One of the goals of the Homecoming Project is to address the prison-to-homelessness pipeline because when people get out of prison, they have nowhere to go. State Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo helped secure $15 million to launch the program in L.A. County in the coming months.
"You need to have family members to support you and help you out. If you don't have that where are you going to go?" Carrillo said. "The programs are limited, there's not a lot of resources and rents are very expensive. If you don't have a job, friends, family, on your own trying to restart your life, what are you going to go?"
According to the University of California San Francisco's statewide study of people experiencing homelessness, nearly 1 in 5 participants surveyed in the state entered homelessness from an institutional setting including a jail or prison. Adding to that, 37% spend time in prison and 77% spent time in jail at some point in their lives.
Recruiting for the Homecoming Project takes place at farmers markets, churches and community centers because organizers believe that the only way the program is successful is if it's in partnership with the community.
"There are a lot of people out there with a little bit of extra space in their house. A lot of these homeless problems would evaporate if we just opened our doors," said Fletcher.
"I can't undo the unhealthy and negative choices I've made in the past, but I can do what I can to make amends and mitigate some of the harm other people may cause by helping them," said Pagaduan. "It's been a long road. This is the happiest and safest I've ever felt in my life."