Ellie Lefiti, 50, a recent graduate of The Homecoming Project. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Oakland resident Ellie Lefiti was 23 when she entered prison. When she walked out of the California Institution for Women in Riverside County in May, she was 50.

“When I first got out, I kept expecting officers to come up to me and say, ‘Joke! Get back in here!’” she recalled. “There was a lot of nervousness.”

Lefiti is one of more than 21,000 people released from California prisons so far this year—a historic wave that’s brought the state’s prison population to a 30-year low. Many received early release due to COVID-19, but Lefiti’s parole hearing was in early March, before the pandemic hit.

Unlike many who leave prisons after a long sentence, she didn’t have to worry about where she would live. While in prison, Lefiti was accepted into The Homecoming Project, an innovative Oakland-based program that uses an Airbnb-style model to secure housing for recently released people. Launched in 2018, the program matches homeowners who have an extra room with people reentering society after long-term incarceration and pays their rent for six months.

To qualify for Homecoming housing, participants must have been sentenced to or served at least 10 years. They also cannot have committed a sex crime or be actively addressing any addiction or mental health issues. Participants must also demonstrate that they have nowhere else to go.

Formerly incarcerated people are especially vulnerable to housing insecurity, and 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless.

For those who struggle with mental health and addiction issues, and are willing to go into rehab, there are reentry housing programs with full-time therapy. But Lefiti and many others like her, who don’t have drug or alcohol stipulations on their parole, need something different: a safe place to stay and the support to get their life in order. For them, the options are extremely limited.

“Not only is the traditional reentry process extremely institutionalized, it slows people down in terms of reintegration,” said Terah Lawyer, program manager of the Homecoming Project. “You shouldn’t have a cookie-cutter approach because everyone has different circumstances. The only thing formerly incarcerated people have in common is having been incarcerated.”

Terah Lawyer, project manager of The Homecoming Project Credit: Pete Rosos

The Homecoming Project has matched 27 people with hosts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Hosts receive $25 per night, plus a home-readiness deposit, for a total of $5,000. By comparison, traditional reentry housing programs, which include food and robust counseling programs for those who need them, cost between $12,000 and $15,000 a month per person. 

Homecoming participants receive a phone, a laptop and the support of a Community Navigator—someone to help them understand and adjust to life on the outside. And for people reentering society after a sentence of a decade or more, there’s often a lot to explain: What are Uber and Lyft? How do you use a smartphone and manage life online? Why do I feel like everyone is staring at me and knows I was just released from prison?

So far, 17 of the 27 participants have completed the program and gone on to secure independent housing. Two of those people formed their own rental agreements with their hosts and continue to live with them. The other 10, including Lefiti, are either in or have recently completed their six-month placement.

Expanding to meet the growing need for reentry services during COVID

Meeting Homecoming’s criteria doesn’t guarantee placement. There are about 100 people on the waiting list, while the slow work of finding hosts takes place.

But Homecoming is now poised to house many more people. In September the project received a $2.5 million award from Enterprise Community Partners and Wells Fargo, making it possible to expand the program. Their goal is to place an additional 120 former prisoners in housing in the East Bay, support them with their reentry plans, and continue to develop the program as a model that can be shared across the country.

“This started as a housing project and has become a community economic development project,” said Alex Busansky, president of Impact Justice, a national innovation and research center, headquartered in Oakland, that developed the Homecoming Project. “Hosts receive money to help them make their mortgage, fix the roof, and keep them in the community.  Those few extra dollars make a difference now, when so many jobs have gone away.”

Reentering the community from prison is difficult under any circumstances, and for some, it’s been even harder during COVID-19. Many jobs have disappeared. It’s harder to get an appointment at public agencies, and most people released from prison after more than 10 years don’t have access to identification records, like a driver’s license or a birth certificate. Without an ID, they can’t open a bank account, get a job, or receive food stamps.

“It was a relief. It was like 10,000 pounds had been lifted off my back.”

Tijue McGhee

“All of the services people needed weren’t available at first,” Lawyer said, referring to the early days of the pandemic. “If they can’t get their ID, they can’t do anything. Our participants were like ghosts.”

When COVID hit, the project expanded its services to include a cellphone, PPE supplies, training on how to social distance, and a Chromebook. If a participant needs more than six months to find a job, they can ask for another three months. 

“It’s challenging. It’s very challenging,” said Tijue McGhee, a former inmate at San Quentin Prison who was released in August. McGhee said the pandemic has made it difficult for him to find work in his current trade as a certified roofer and water-proofer. He was fortunate to receive housing through the Homecoming Project, and now lives in Oakland with a host. The program also helped him get a job.

“It was a relief,” he said. “It was like 10,000 pounds had been lifted off my back.”

For Lefiti, the changes brought by COVID have actually felt familiar and helped ease the transition.

“I got used to wearing masks and having limited movements in prison,” she said. “In a way I was comfortable with the shutdown. In prison we didn’t have many options. It helped me ease into society’s movements out here.”  

Finding the right match, and letting people choose

Just as participants are screened before their applications are accepted, so are hosts. Many who apply and get accepted are members of the faith community, and some are pastors. Others were once incarcerated themselves. They must have a livable home in a safe and accessible neighborhood. The room has to be separate and furnished with access to a bathroom and kitchen. And each host should be living a responsible life with the understanding that the participant they host will be watching them.

“How do they provide for their household? Manage their home?” Lawyer said. “You can’t learn those practical skills in a transitional housing program, but those psychological cues can be passed on to the participant from their host.”

Lawyer calls Homecoming’s process for matching hosts and participants the program’s “secret sauce.” 

“We take the time to review each file,” she said. Which are the early risers? Which are active in a faith community? Then they introduce potentially good matches. “When they meet, they usually agree. And because they get to actively choose each other, a trust develops.” 

For Tara Williams, the motivation to host a former prisoner came from her own lived experience. Released in 2019 after 20 years in prison, Williams works with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners supporting women who are or have been incarcerated. That’s how she heard about the Homecoming Project and why she herself is hosting a woman released in October after 23 years in prison.

“It’s a really huge transition, to go from trauma to a place of peace,” she said. “I had a good support system in place, a home to stay in, good environment, good values. I was one of the lucky ones, and I want to pay it forward.” 

Williams does more for her participant than provide a room in her home. She is helping her with one of the most time-consuming and difficult reentry tasks—retrieving her identity. Williams has taken her participant to the DMV and Social Security Administration to get her essential records.

“I go a little bit beyond because I understand it from a personal perspective,” she said. “I’m trying to make sure she has the best support that’s needed so she can be successful.”

Lefiti lives in Oakland’s Fruitvale district in a home owned by a pastor. There are two other parolees in the home and each has their own room with keys to the bedroom and the house. 

“It’s really a huge transition to go from trauma to a place of peace. I was one of the lucky ones and I want to pay it forward.”

Tara Williams

“We met on the phone first before I even got out here.  She was adorable from the beginning,” Lefiti said of her host. “The first thing she asked me was, ‘Where are your kids? I want to make sure you’re connected with them.’”

Lefiti was in touch with them. During her 27 years in prison, she stayed in regular communication with her two sons, who live in Texas and the Bay Area. “We built our bond. Coming out and seeing them physically, that was emotional.”

Ellie Lefiti, 50, holds up a cellphone she received through The Homecoming Project. Credit: Pete Rosos

Lefiti speaks proudly of the work she did on herself while incarcerated. She went into prison “with issues,” she said. “I grew up with domestic violence and I became a participant in it. Blaming everyone else for my anger was getting me nowhere.”

But after participating in multiple anger management and childhood trauma programs in prison, Lefiti feels that she has “made the change.” She currently works as a supervisor at Five Keys reentry services in San Francisco. Her job makes her even more grateful that she is able to live independently in a home and not in a traditional reentry program.

“You look at incarcerated people, you see one and you think they’re all the same.  Everybody gets treated the same, living in those transitional homes,” she said. “I’m not an addict and it’d be frustrating to sit there for all of that programming. I’d check out and they’d take that as rebellious.”

Terah Lawyer knows all about sitting through recovery meetings that she doesn’t need. Imprisoned for 15 years, Lawyer was certified in prison to work as a drug and alcohol counselor. When she was released in 2017 the only place she could find to live was a transitional housing program in San Francisco where she had to attend recovery classes that she was qualified to teach. She could not leave the building at all for two weeks and it was three months before she could interview for a job.

“I was taking a bed from someone who needed those drug and alcohol services,” she said. “I was so extremely grateful to be housed that I didn’t reflect on the system until later. The model is an outdated, cookie-cutter approach. We can do better.”

In 2018 she was hired to work at Impact Justice, eventually taking on the role of program manager for the Homecoming Project. In its early stages the project accepted its first participant, a trans man who would have likely become homeless were it not for the Homecoming Project.

Many trans people would rather live on the street than in a state-funded transitional group home, Lawyer said, which assign roommates based upon a participant’s gender at birth.

For Lawyer, the power of the Homecoming Project is in the attention it gives to each individual and their reentry plan, both to help the participant succeed and also to create a positive connection with the host. Although inspired by Airbnb’s short-term housing rental model, she said, the Homecoming Project’s process is far more vigilant.

“Any individual with a credit card can rent a house on Airbnb, no questions asked,” Lawyer said. “We do a lot more oversight. Our participants come completely exposed, but with a level of maturity that they embrace their past and they want a fresh start.”

Kate Rix is a freelance reporter based in Oakland. She covers education, equity and vulnerable populations. After receiving her Master’s in journalism from U.C. Berkeley, Kate covered criminal law for The Recorder newspaper in San Francisco and was a regular contributor to Scholastic Teacher and Administrator magazines. Kate grew up in Oakland and is proud to witness the city’s continued role as an epicenter for activism, social entrepreneurship and social justice movements.