Sponsors is a reentry program in Eugene, Oregon, which provides housing and other services to people who are returning to the community after being incarcerated. The organization was founded in 1973, and for decades has provided exceptional and broad-based assistance for their clients.
Their founding principle says it all: “People can and do change, and that a strategic intervention at the appropriate time can serve as a catalyst in that change.“
For many people, successfully returning to the community is a hugely difficult task. Housing is a key issue, but at an even more basic level many people leave prison with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Sponsors offers 3-4 months of housing, plus other support including job training, mentorship, assistance obtaining necessities like ID cards and bus passes, networking with employers and parole officers, and the incredibly important support of counseling and advice. Secure and substance-free space can be the critical factor in a successful transition.
Reentry services make the community safer. They can intervene at a critical moment and stop someone from returning to old patterns of crime or drug abuse. Since 1988, Sponsors has served over 4000 clients. This is an organization to admire.
OUR WORK WITH SPONSORS
Reentry work might be one of the most critical areas for empowering, humanizing photography and storytelling. For both the public’s perception of the issue, and individuals’ perceptions of their own lives and futures, an person’s dignity and individuality is absolutely key.
We spent two days working with Sponsors, speaking with men and women as they worked through Sponsors programs and lived in the transitional housing spaces. Again and again we heard complicated, difficult stories of painful pasts, and uncertain but hopeful futures. Everyone we spoke with had been involved in cognitive behavioral therapy (MRT) courses, and spoke openly and conscientiously about harms they had caused and the changes that they had made. Each interview was both painful and inspiring.
Again and again we were told about the importance of accessible, affordable housing. Sponsors has transitional housing for men and women, offering free or low-cost living space for up to four months after people are released from prison. The spaces are designed to be comfortable and homelike, but include shared living space and mandatory participation in programs as well. For many, knowing that they have secure housing can make the difference between success and failure in a successful transition.
One interviewee, Jordan, said,
“I was in and out of prison a couple of times before, and housing was always the difference. You get out and go back to what you know. You burn bridges, and are surrounded by mostly good people who are doing not good things. You need pro-social support. Here there’s a network, a place to live, and community.”
Another person told us that he would have ended up at the homeless shelter if it wasn’t for Sponsors.
At the women’s housing, Patrice told us that she had started thinking about being able to transition to Sponsors before her time was up. She said that knowing she would have housing was incredibly important to her as she thought about transitioning to life on the outside. Now that she’s at Sponsors, she said:
“There is a sense of community here at Sponsors. I already knew most of the people here--we went through treatment and did time together. There’s shared space, and house meetings. We’re all clean and sober together, and the UAs we do keep everyone accountable.”
Housing can put an incredible strain on already difficult family dynamics after incarceration. We spoke with a woman named Trish, who told us that living at Sponsors was a choice she made to help her prepare to move back in with her family. Her short (three week) stay in the women’s housing gave her the mental space and functional skills to make her return a success.
COUNSELING AND STAFF SUPPORT
Most of the people we spoke with touched on the issue of anxiety when returning to life on the outside. They were worried about the stigma and the barriers to employment, housing, reconnecting with family and friends, and establishing ‘normal’ lives. For all of them, the support of Sponsors programs and the staff and community made an enormous difference.
A young man named Brandon told us, “I didn’t expect the counselors to have the same kinds of pasts I had. They can relate on many levels, and it makes it easier. It shows you you can change your life, and can do something better.”
A woman we spoke with, named Cricket, spoke at length about the support she received while applying to jobs. She said that in the early days she would go to the Reentry Resource Center for job counseling and just cry with the advisor there. He helped her first try “dumbing down” her resume to apply for fast food jobs, and then to strategize how to talk with employers about her history and the incentives available to companies hiring people with felonies on their records. She had been a forklift operator while incarcerated, and she finally landed a job as a materials handler. She is now one three women in a workforce of 200, with supervisors advocating for her and an optimistic future ahead.
Jordan summed it all up beautifully:
“If you follow what they lay out for you here at Sponsors, there’s no way you won’t succeed. Some people choose not to, but each step is there for you to take. They help you find a job, get documents you need. They go above and beyond. And that matters because if you don’t have that help right away, it’s hard to pull out into a new way of being.”