The Reentry Network for Returning Citizens hosted a town hall on housing, March 15 at St. Elizabeth East Gateway Pavilion in Ward 8. Courtney Stewart, chairman of the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, assembled community leaders to engage in a dialogue with District residents on housing and employment barriers faced by people returning home from prison.
The town hall was attended by Mayor Vincent Gray; Nicholas Majett, director of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs; Michael Kelly, director of Housing and Community Development; Adrianne Todman, director of District of Columbia Housing Authority; Jim Knight, Director of Jubilee Housing; the Rev. Donald Isaac Sr., director of East of the River Clergy, Police, Community Partnership; Patrina Williams, program director for Federal City Recovery Services; Phylisa Carter, senior staff attorney at Bread for the City; and Anita Bonds (D-at-Large).
Mayor Gray shared remarks on the District government's initiatives to create more affordable housing and employment opportunities for returning citizens. Gray reminded attendees about his commitment to putting approximately $287 million into affordable housing, an initiative he first introduced during his March 11 State of the District speech.
Gray boasted that under his administration about 534 returning citizens were hired for various government jobs, and between 2011 and 2014, the government made 406 construction job placements. "One of the things that we have tried to do is elevate the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, so people recognize it wasn't just a one or two person operation put in place," said Gray. "We've really tried to build a credible operation."
Gray added that while the numbers aren't impressively loud, the employment initiatives were setting a tone to go in the right direction. Gray mentioned that relationships have been developed with a number of District employers such as the two new Walmart stores opened on Georgia Ave. NW and H St. NW that have already hired 68 percent of the District's resident.
According to Gray, about 18 agencies have been put in place to work on housing and jobs in the District. These agencies have responsibilities to returning citizens "who have gotten past whatever challenges they may have had and they deserve an opportunity as well to be able to live a good life in the District of Columbia."
In addition, community colleges and universities in the District are opening their doors for returning citizens to participate in training programs such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry and technical assistance, and evaluation services.
When returning citizen Michael Shackelford, 46, asked if there were plans to increase the staff and the budget in the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, Gray responded that staffing more people in the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs will lead to a separate and unequal system, an approach he refuses to adopt. "My approach is to say that in every agency in this government, we need people working on behalf of returning citizens," Gray said.
Khary Lawson, 36, also a returning citizen of the District said he was terminated from his custodial job with the D.C. National Guard due to his prison record.
Lawson, who served 16 years in jail said even after being home for two years, the problem reentry citizens like him face is that employers aren't giving them the opportunity to display their skills. "It's like I am still being penalized for something I did when I was 19-years-old. And I came home trying to do the right thing," Lawson said. "But the government is the one that terminated me."
Gray said the way Lawson portrayed the situation sounded unfair to him and he plans to address the situation on his behalf. The mayor noted that the Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act or "Ban the Box," was put in place to ensure employment equality for reentry citizens. The Returning Citizens Public Employment Inclusion Act prohibits city agencies from discriminating against job applicants who have finished serving criminal sentences when hiring for most city positions.