We Are On The Frontline

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Someone getting out of prison right now will likely land at the Greyhound Station on Lafayette, and have no place to go, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll hear the imperatives about “safer at home” and “stay at home”, but that’s a tall order if you don’t have a home, or really any place where you can be safe. They’ll have the clothes they’re wearing, and little else.

Similarly, those who had gotten out of prison before the pandemic struck are desperate and destitute, their successful reentry cut short by the economic shutdown and now-lost employment. For Project Return, this is the frontline, and we are on it.

There was a day in March when Project Return sent almost every staff member home, put a sign on our front office door with the phrase “temporarily suspended”, and shuttered – for the time being – our transitional employment enterprises. For a brief period, we took to the phones in hopes of staying in connection. But this is not work that can be done remotely. In no time at all, we were back on the frontline of the crisis.

There is inventiveness and singlemindedness, all to the good. As we evolved our compassionate care and service delivery to comport with the public health imperatives of COVID-19, we spilled out into our large parking lot, turning the asphalt at 4th and Lafayette into an open-air reentry services hub. We marked off six-foot intervals with bright, Project Return-yellow tape, we created clear signage for distancing, and we pulled out whatever we could find in the garage – sawhorses and cornhole boards – to block off both ends of the lot from car traffic. Each morning these days, we set up tables and tents and safety accessories and, voila, we’re open for business.

Project Return is in the opportunity business, and opportunities are hard to come by right now. We are a hand-up operation, but right now there’s almost nothing to hand up to. Normally, we would be going to the ends of the earth to help people succeed at work. Now we are doing everything we can to help them survive the lack of work.

We’ve always served meals and given out groceries on a daily basis, but it’s always been a means to a greater end: their sustainable, productive new lives, getting on their feet after incarceration, and leaving prison behind. We would ordinarily be buying people the tools they need for their new job, and outfitting them from head to toe, coaching them on how to budget their new earnings, positioning for the promotion. Now, it’s about survival: we’re making sure they have a tent and a sleeping bag, or rent money if they were fortunate enough to be under a roof, and food to stay alive. The end to their destitution is not yet in sight, but we’ll do everything we can to help them survive it.


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