By Dwight Hobbes
As if Jessica Wright doesn’t have enough on her hands dealing with today’s economy, in her case there are, to say the least, complications out of the ordinary.
On the drawing board, commit a crime and you’re punished, serve time, and you have paid your proverbial debt to society. In theory, that’s that. Life, though, isn’t lived on a drawing board. Or in theory.
In reality, the stigma of being an ex-felon sticks. Like glue. Especially when it comes to pounding the pavement to find an apartment or land a job. Actually putting what’s behind you behind you is next to impossible.
“It’s hard, very hard. I have tried looking at volunteering in the resource room at the Urban League and offered to teach people how to use the computers, word processing programs, and fax machines, and never heard back. I was referred to a personal care attendant service. I went in, was honest about my background, and was passed over for the position.”
Making bad matters worse, services and programs exist to help ex-felons re-enter society as legitimately productive citizens contributing to and befitting from the same workplace as anyone else with the skills required to secure and sustain legal employment. Services and programs are in place to help them locate somewhere to live. There aren’t a great many, but they’re there.
If such assistance for women is available at all in the Twin Cities, Jessica Wright, despite looking high and low, hasn’t found it. “There should be a program for women,” she says, “because there are just as many female offenders as there are men.
“Although there are not as many prisons for women as there are for men here in the state of Minnesota, there are a lot of women who have even minor offenses [and] are not able to get employment or housing. The state needs to implement a program for not one gender, but for both, because there [should] be more jobs for people qualified to do the work.”
Wright caught a break through a combination of happenstance and initiative. Not a definitive break, but still a break: 180 Degrees, Inc., a program for males, came to her attention. She acted.
“I heard about 180 Degrees on [a radio show] and called Hillary Sorin to see what it was all about.” Sorin, director of the Sonic Program at 180 Degrees, responded. She couldn’t serve Wright as an official client, since the Sonic Program doesn’t accommodate females. However, she’s gone to considerable lengths on a volunteer basis expending energy to assist Wright in researching resources for employment and networking.
“I’m one of [the few] women she’s working with,” says Wright. “Off-site. On her [personal] time. Her work is painstaking. Sometimes when you fight for what you believe in, you have to stand alone. Hillary is very resourceful.”
Wright isn’t bitter about 180 Degrees being gender specific. “I’m happy to know there’s a program [at all]. It is so hard when you have a [criminal record]. There’s basically nothing to do once you get out. A lot of people end up on the same course that landed them in jail in the first place. And the prison system is redundant. It’s just, you know, over and over again. A revolving door.”
Released in December from the Anoka County Workhouse after a roughly month-long sentence, Wright, now residing in Fridley, has stayed on the straight and narrow. Few and far between as jobs are in general, they’re scarcer still for someone in her situation. A systemic roadblock leaves her reluctantly on the rolls at Anoka County public assistance, specifically the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
She takes the tax-funded income and, picking and choosing, stretches a buck as best she can. “I budget, [shopping at] several different stores. I use [supermarket] coupons for sales. That comes in handy. I go to [a bargain chain store]. Food shelves.”
How is it going? “It’s working, right now. My bills are paid. I make sure the house is covered. I have an 11-year-old. When I buy him clothes, it’s usually from money I get from school.”
She’s attending Colorado Technical University online, pursuing a degree to become a Pentecostal minister and chemical dependency counselor. And she uses part of her student loan to help sustain the household, which includes her son and mother.
Jessica Wright, to be sure, is no complacent welfare queen content to let the working citizens pay her freight. She wants to use her skills and experience, including schooling as a paralegal, to pay her way and find a larger apartment in which to care for family.
But the same problem with employment plagues her housing search: Soon as a background check is done, she’s done for. “It’s almost impossible to get a job. It’s just as hard to get a place to live. You have to make do. When you outgrow it, you’re almost suffocating.”
Ultimately, she sums up, “You want to put your past in the past and leave it there. But, that’s not the case.” Articulate with a hard nose, Wright has no intention of letting any of it get the better of her. “I don’t believe in quitting on myself. That is not me.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.