Community Catalyst Grant Experiences

Below, three members of a grant project within JONAH, which they affectionally call LIFT, talk about their meaningful experiences and successes working towards reducing barriers people with conviction histories face when attempting to find housing in our area. 

Lynn Buske JONAH Organizer and Project Lead
I was excited, hopeful and honored when JONAH partnered with EXPO, Community Catalyst (policy experts based in D.C. and holder of grant funds), and the EC City-County Health Department in November 2019 on a $75,000 grant.  We had big goals:

  • To learn from people with lived experience to really understand what people with conviction histories face when trying to find housing, to lift up their stories, and empower them through training and community involvement.
  • To work with healthcare systems to reduce barriers to people with criminal backgrounds by improving existing programs and investing community benefit dollars.
  • To build connections with organizations connected to the issue.

JONAH is one of three groups in the nation to be working on this project – the other two groups are the Center for Health Progress in Pueblo, Colorado and Asian Pacific American Network in Portland, Oregon. It has been educational and important to hear from other groups across the nation who have faced similar problems and/or are working in similar arenas – we aren’t alone and we aren’t recreating a box as there are many success stories to learn from. 

Since that time, even during a pandemic, our team has accomplished many things on their way towards these goals:

  • We’ve received training from Community Catalyst (CC) on community health and policy work.
  • We’ve built a dedicated team of JONAH staff, Health Department staff, EXPO members, community advocates, professionals, people with conviction histories, and landlords. 
  • We’ve collected 50 stories of from homeless people with conviction histories, in just a few weeks. My advocates tell me this is a drop in the bucket here.
  • We have collected stories from landlords who have worked with this population.
  • 9 individuals were trained, with CC, to be trainers in Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) to help people understand how housing, food access, environment, job security, income, etc all deeply impact health outcomes.
  • We worked with EXPO to pressure Governor Evers to protect people in prison from COVID-19.
  • We created a Community Survey to hear from the community how they were impacted by the Stay-At-Home order around COVID-19.
  • We gathered data for a full-scale understanding of the complexities of the issue, including local and national approaches, that we will use to do community education.
  • We learned from the Health Department on how the healthcare systems in EC County assess their focus and receive input from the community.

This project has profoundly changed me. The wisdom of this group humbles and teaches me every time we meet. The gratitude those who have experienced this issue have by being listened to and included touches my heart deeply. They see the wounds in our society better than anyone, their compassion is broad, they have so much to bring to the table, and their resilience from their experiences make them powerful. It seems, in our community, that communication and behavioral norms prevent us from really understanding each other’s different stories. I’ve definitely learned that we all are the same underneath – and any one of us could follow these paths that lead to homelessness and conviction. Also, the more people we talk to the more clear it is to me that every person’s life is so unique and complex I fear no policy can be created to accommodate everyone, but I also know that our community policies have made a great impact and really CAN turn things around for MORE people. All this has deepened my belief in relationship building, collaboration, and the power of change.

Moving into 2021, we feel prepared to complete stage one of the grant, and are looking for further funding to work on next stages with more groups in the community:

  1. Communicating with health systems during their community health assessment process in early 2021 to encourage investment in housing programs (working with Western Dairyland).
  2. Educating the community on SDOH, the issue of housing and conviction history, and why it is important to invest in recovery.
  3. Bringing back efforts around “Ban the Box” – the box that individuals have to check on housing and job applications indicting whether one has a criminal record.
  4. Increasing peer support and relational-based advocacy.
  5. Increasing job training for returning citizens.
  6. Expanding our policy support beyond healthcare systems.

Ron Bower – Outreach Coordinator
This project is important to me because as a member of the LGBTQ community, I am concerned about the rate of homelessness and incarceration within my community. A lack of housing based on discrimination is the primary cause of homelessness for LGBTQ’s. Adding a criminal record or jail time to the mix makes finding housing to be near impossible.

Even before they have a criminal record, many LGBTQ people are isolated from their families, face bullying, harassment, and unfair treatment in school; lack employment opportunities because of discrimination; have their lives criminalized; and are targeted by police. These challenges don’t go away while someone is in prison or jail; in fact, they can become even more pronounced when one gets out. Like other formerly incarcerated people, many released LGBTQ people also may have a history of substance abuse and physical and mental health issues. Together, all of these factors can be linked to high rates of insecurity and instability, and all of them add up to huge challenges for an LGBTQ person who has a criminal record and who may have spent time in prison or jail. Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ people are more likely to experience homelessness and incarceration with approximately 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify LGBTQ.

If my contribution to this project can make even a small difference in helping end the stigma associated with being homeless and/or a criminal record, for all people, not just LGBTQ, then it is worth it.

Kyle Brown – Volunteer
I got involved in this project to help address the needs not being met by our community for people facing re-entry from incarceration, addiction, and homelessness. I appreciate these efforts by JONAH because I myself have faced these extremely difficult situations. September 2019 I was released from prison with access to minimal resources. I relapsed in October and overdosed multiple times in January before I ended up back in jail. I strongly believe if I had had access to appropriate housing and a support system I could have avoided all that. I am thankful today that by the grace of God I am alive. I have a home, sobriety, and am a present father to my

kids. I know a lot of people out there are still struggling. My experiences give me an advantage to being a voice for those still struggling and support in navigating and accessing resources that are available or coming soon.