Photo: The Reentry Initiative staff, volunteers, and participants enjoying a Thanksgiving & Christmas Themed Alumni Group before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Emily Kleeman, Executive Director of The Reentry Initiative.

One of the many vexing problems facing lawmakers these days is how to keep the COVID-19 virus away from vulnerable, tightly-packed prison populations. Efforts continue to early release non-violent inmates, including cannabis offenders, from prison because of the pandemic.

Cities and towns across the country have stepped up. The Marshall Project, which covers news about the U.S. criminal justice system, reports that Houston’s county jail has stopped admitting people arrested for low-level crimes, and that jailers in Oakland, Calif. are turning to empty motel rooms to make sure people have places to go. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced a plan to allow early release. Just last week, 52 prisoners were released in Colorado under those new guidelines. 

Relocating those people, a full-time job in normal times, has become even more difficult for those who help relocate inmates regularly. “We’re trying to be creative during this time from a human-resource standpoint,” says Joseph Zanovitch, executive director of Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (HOPE). “We’re creating an action plan for something that has never happened before. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes trying to take care of folks.”

HOPE has two operations, a year-round evening shelter and an outreach program to anyone in need in the city of Longmont. HOPE is struggling to find shelter for those who have been released who don’t have family or friends who can take them in, and the new stay-in-place restrictions have further strained the organization’s options. “When restaurants, gyms, rec centers, libraries all close, it leaves a hole for anyone who relies on those services during the day,” he says.

The organization relies on churches and other groups to provide basics as people integrate back into society, but that’s not always possible in the current situation. “If you’re living in a vehicle, rec centers and gyms provide showers,” Zanovitch explains. “And when it’s snowing, there’s even less opportunity to find someplace to go.”

HOPE for Longmont Volunteers serve a client. Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Braun, HOPE for Longmont Director of Development.

Emily Kleeman is executive director of The Reentry Initiative (TRI), where inmates find help integrating and finding jobs. That second goal has become much more difficult, with the unemployment rate at record highs and no job offerings. TRI gets federal funding to assist in providing parolees a place to stay, and the chance for education and employment skills. “We get weekly lists of releases in our county so we can start supporting these individuals. Our supports are not tied to employment right now.”

She says that the governor’s plan for early release is for those, including low-level cannabis offenses, who don’t need as much active supervision. “They’re not doing it chaotically,” Kleeman says. “But rather they’re making sure every person has a place to go, a shelter or family friends and relatives.”

The last week has been particularly hard, with spring snows adding to the burden of helping people find places to stay. “It’s been a tough week from a shelter standpoint,” Zanovitch admits. “The staff has been great. We’re now providing showers and warm meals for lunch, and internet access for those seeking work, helping with taxes and giving them an address so they can receive mail. We’ve never before served three meals a day. Now, working with community restaurants, we’re able to do that.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t need help. Kleeman welcomes donations to help support TRI’s efforts to feed people, get them into motels, and to provide gift cards for bus passes and protective gear. Encouraging letters to people reintegrating are helpful as well.  “People have basic needs. You’d be surprised how important that is,” she says. “We give people 20 dollars to do their laundry.” 

Zanovitch says anyone can chip in, and that you can find a list of needs at the organization’s website. “It’s a great way to help us out,” he says, noting that the organization’s needs are limited right now to the list. “The community has been so supportive,” he says. “It makes such a difference for folks who have nowhere to go.”

The Reentry Initiative: https://www.reentryinitiative.org.
Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement: https://hopeforlongmont.org.