When Freda Ceaser meets with people leaving incarceration for the first time, she usually knows what they’re going to say.
“‘If I could just get a job, I could get back on my feet or if I could just get a foot in a door, I could stand a fighting chance,’ These are people who want to change their lives,” says Ceaser, director of employment services at Central City Concern.
“But they are facing a lot of challenges as they come out, and it does a number on your confidence.”
Ceaser speaks from experience. In 2004, she was released from prison.
While on parole she tried to get back on her feet—only to meet setback after setback. A successful job interview crumbled after an unsuccessful background check. Renting an apartment seemed impossible.
Ceaser knows she’s luckier than most. She had a family and a place to go once she was released from prison. But for many who come out of prison in Multnomah County who identify as needing housing --- while all are placed in transitional housing in the interim -- some end up homeless.
And for black men in particular, the challenges can be daunting. An African American leaving a criminal justice program without employment or housing has a 36 percent chance of re-entering the system.
That’s why Ceaser and Central City Concern, a Portland nonprofit working to end homelessness, have become a driving force behind a new program meant to help African Americans leaving the justice system. It’s called “Flip the Script,” and it focuses on breaking the cycles that send people of color back to prison more often than other parolees.
The program is funded and supported through a partnership with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ), the City and County Joint Office of Homeless Services, Central City Concern and Meyer Memorial Trust, with a specific focus on: decreasing the disproportionate incarceration (jail) and use of emergency shelter for people of color.
“We looked back three years at the recidivism rate. So for us this was a no-brainer,” Ceaser says. “We need to invest in our reentry programs, especially housing and employment. Clients exiting our program with full time employment and rent responsible, their recidivism rates are cut in half.”
Prospective candidates are assessed and referred by their (DCJ) parole and probation officer or corrections counselor to Central City Concern transitional housing. They are given a chance to work with the Flip the Script program.
Housing through Flip the Script is drug- and alcohol-free.
In addition to transitional housing, candidates are offered employment, treatment, community volunteer opportunities, rental assistance and culturally-specific services.
Services range from: job coaching, job retention and career planning, along with Afro-centric therapy designed to promote self-actualization and new thought.
“When you come out, there’s a different set of problems you have to tackle, from housing and jobs to cognitive and mental health issues, and the disparities that are happening in the African American community,” says Ceaser. “We, as African Americans, need to fortify and be reminded of our valuable heritage and culture, so this Afro-centric approach really tackles that.”
Residents are paired with on-site housing and case management specialists and peer support mentors and professionals who are also people of color.
“They know their Employment Specialist is not going to send them to jobs that are going to turn them down,” Ceaser says. “They are going to send clients to someone who will give them a chance at rebuilding their life through meaningful employment.”
Residents set goals for their job searches. Once they’re on their feet, they’re offered help paying first and last month’s rent for permanent housing.
On Thursday, dozens of people, including elected leaders, filled a conference room at Central City Concern’s Old Town Recovery Center for an overview of the program.
“I want you to know that you have my full-fledged support,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said to the guests. “We all know that a stable home and stable income are the key to getting ahead. And yet sadly, when people finish their service in our corrections system we put every barrier we can in front of them. For too long, our criminal justice system has focused on punishing people, especially people of color, instead of investing in their success, This collaboration will change lives.”
County Commissioner Loretta Smith extolled the program’s connection to jobs.
"When I was first elected, back in 2010, my first act was to bring together black and brown men and find out what they needed," said Commissioner Smith. "I wanted to hear what was going on in their communities, and what needed fixing. What they wanted were jobs. Job training. Summer jobs. Internships. Opportunities."
To gauge the program’s progress, an advocacy coordinator will get feedback and analyze qualitative data that will be brought back to community stakeholders and legislators.
“It’s the qualitative data that’s going to come out of the funding through Meyer Memorial Trust that I’m really excited about,” says Department of Community Justice Program Manager Liv Jenssen. “We need to have real information to see what we should be expanding and really having serious conversations.”
Twelve years ago, and after countless job interviews, Ceaser got her foot in the door - a job at Central City Concern. The position put her on the frontlines with people exiting the justice system. Today, she not only leads employment services at Central City Concern, she has a Masters in Social Work which helped lay the foundation for the “Flip the Script” program.
“I’m very lucky to be doing what I’m doing now. Central City Concern has given me countless opportunities to realize my true potential, says Ceaser. “For many Flip the Script clients it will be their first time experiencing the confidence boost that comes from getting a meaningful job and decent pay and having a place stay - that’s flipping the script.”
Referrals for the program begin in mid-February.