How the home-sharing economy is helping break the prison cycle in California

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Owning a home was a dream come true for Richard Cruz, but not for the usual reasons.

After spending 30 years in prison for a crime he committed as a 16-year-old, Cruz was released in 2018 and was among the first participants in the Homecoming Project, a reentry program that eases the transition from prison to regular life.

"I didn't have all the restrictions of the reentry house that I was in when I was first released and the threat of going back to prison all the time. It changed the way I was experiencing freedom," said Cruz.

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He was able to get a job at the Ahimsa Collective and, with the help of a private donor, bought a house in Oakland that is now part of the Homecoming Project. He can house up to four parolees.

"The majority of our hosts believe in second chances and redemption," said Terah Lawyer, who runs the project for Impact Justice.

In California, nearly a third of people released from prison are unemployed. Many also end up homeless.

Homecoming Project is a solution that found inspiration in home sharing services like Airbnb. Lawyer said they look for homeowners with an extra bedroom who are willing to host a formerly incarcerated person. Impact Justice pays their housing costs for six months.

"One of our secret sauces is that the host and the participant choose each other. They talk about the home will be like. They talk about the house rules," said Lawyer.

Traditional reentry houses are much more restrictive with some implementing curfews or limits on family visits. Violating these house rules could land the parolee back in prison.

"Parole supervision can be a double edged sword for some people," said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. "It can provide the kind of infrastructure and the kind of stability that they need to avoid getting into trouble. And for many other people, it's a trap."

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A 2005 report found that 66% of parolees returned to prison within three years and 39% were sent back to prison because of a technical or administrative violation.

The Homecoming Project gives parolees more freedom and does not require they get a job right away.

"When you see beyond someone's criminal record, you see someone that is deserving of a sense of humanity and they're deserving of an opportunity to give back to the community by being successful," said Lawyer.

Anthony Ammons Jr. is one of Cruz' new tenants. He spent 20 years in prison for murder and was released in April. He appreciates the chance to make a slow transition to regular life.

"They're allowing me to take the time to see who I am out there," said Ammons. "There's a person who grew up in prison, but there's also a grown man who needs to learn this world."

Playing basketball is helping him figure his new life. The approach is working.

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Of the 50 people who have gone through the Homecoming Project, none have been sent back to prison.

"We educate our hosts on post-incarceration syndrome. There are lots of things that people have to decompress from an institutionalized facility. You don't have as many sights, smells and interactions with people. So there's a lot of things that our participants need to relearn," said Lawyer.

That can be as simple as sleeping in a regular bed. It took Ammons several days to feel safe in a soft mattress after sleeping for decades in a hard prison bed.

"There's a national movement that recognizes the failings of the status quo approach to criminal justice and that's calling out for common sense reforms," said Boudin, whose office has several restorative justice programs aimed at reducing incarceration and recidivism.

The Homecoming Project recently won the Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability and last year was given a $2.5 million award for its innovative approach towards housing solutions.

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