When Richard Cruz was released from prison after 30 years, he thought he was free.
But when he arrived at an assigned reentry home in Hayward, his family was not allowed inside. He lived with 31 other residents, all sharing one bathroom. And even though he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in prison, he was required to attend substance abuse classes and treatment five days a week.
If he didn’t abide by the rules, he would lose his housing.
“I just went from one carceral setting to another,” Cruz, 48, said.
He found that his reentry was similar to the experiences of many others, which is why in October 2020 Cruz came up with a new form of reentry housing, one that would offer wraparound services and a restorative justice approach. As co-executive director at the Ahimsa Collective, a restorative justice organization in Oakland, Cruz raised money to open two homes. The first house in East Oakland opened in March 2021. A second five-person home opened in August 2022.
“My goal is to change the values of how reentry is done, to where it’s not warehousing. It’s not just a moneymaker that people are profiting more off of the mass incarceration system,” Cruz said.
According to Margaretta Lin, executive director at Just Cities Institute, a platform for advancing racial and social equity initiatives, many of the same companies and corporations that operate private prisons also operate transitional housing.
“There’s a profit margin to people not being successful,” Lin said.
When individuals are not provided with basic human needs during their reentry process, they face a high likelihood of reoffending. Because incarcerating someone costs more than providing them with housing or job training, it ultimately benefits the same companies and corporations that fund transitional housing.
In California, state prisons provide three housing options for people to choose from upon release — substance use disorder treatment residential programs, sober living transitional housing, and supportive living. Because many supportive housing options are occupied by seniors, others tend to end up in either treatment residential programs or transitional housing.
“A majority of publicly subsidized transitional housing does not lead to permanent housing solutions. We’re providing people with a short-term place, but it doesn’t help them get to where they need to be in terms of individual success, family success, and community success,” Lin said.
At the Ahimsa homes, every resident receives their own room, as well as $150 for groceries, a monthly stipend of $200, a Clipper card for public transportation, and reimbursement of up to $160 for clothing. There are no curfews. The staff holds monthly restorative justice circles to see how residents are acclimating and how else they can support their transition.
“Recidivism is at an ugly high and it continues to climb because there’s not enough resources and not enough of a hold for people when they come home,” said Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart, Ahimsa Collective’s Reentry program director. “When I say ‘hold,’ I mean people being held. That’s essentially allowing them to come home and feel human again.”
Both Ahimsa homes are publicized through word of mouth. Neither takes applications, nor do they have a waitlist. If the organization or its current residents learn of someone in need of housing, they bring them in for a meet-and-greet. Current residents then decide whether or not they would be a good fit for the home.
By meeting people’s basic needs, the organization relieves some of the pressure that those in reentry typically face, which can often feel insurmountable.
In a 2018 Just Cities report, graduate student researcher Tim Tsai from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School Public Policy found that roughly 70% of unhoused residents in Oakland’s encampments were formerly incarcerated.
One of the Ahimsa’s newest residents, Louis Delaware, 56, imagined he’d have to live on the street when he was released from prison in early October after serving 27 years. Because his charges were dismissed, he was not offered any resources from the state upon release.
When a friend told him about the Ahimsa reentry homes, Delaware moved into a room on the second floor with a view of the Oakland hills. In his first two weeks there, he walked around the neighborhood for exercise and bought raspberry Pop-Tarts from the grocery store. He and his housemate played chess and cooked spaghetti, tacos, and ribs — a stark contrast from a traditional reentry home, whereby people cannot bring in food.
“They’re just giving me a little bit of time to collect my thoughts,” Delaware said. “I never thought it would be the best time of my life but, actually, it is.”
Adjacent to Ahimsa’s first home is Mercy House, a community organization that provides groceries to low-income and houseless families. Ahimsa residents often are among the volunteers at Mercy House who package and distribute food weekly.
“They are lovely people,” said Lisa O’Bryant, neighbor and Mercy House manager. “It’s been a great help. They are definitely making an impact.”
According to Stanley-Lockheart, residents typically stay for nine months to one year, but they are welcome to stay longer if necessary.
Anthony Ammons Jr., 37, was one of Ahimsa’s first residents. His mom stayed with him to help with the transition. After settling in, he went on a kayak trip with other residents and invited friends over for backyard barbecues, both of which were organized by staff members.
Ammons took the bus to Lake Merritt every morning, did odd jobs around the house, and packaged food at the church across the street every Wednesday. He developed his computer skills and enrolled in a financial literacy class.
“It’s one thing to rehabilitate inside of prison but another to rehabilitate outside of prison,” Ammons said. “They want you to find yourself out here. You have to learn how to grow and they give you the space to do it.”
One year later, Ammons moved into his own apartment and started a position as a public safety adviser for California State Assemblymember Mia Bonta. Although he’s no longer a resident at the Ahimsa reentry home, he knows that he can always return.
“It’s not a community of once you leave, you’re out. I think they have it right,” Ammons said. “I think everybody else needs to get on board.”
The six who had lived in the Ahimsa homes all found jobs and permanent housing upon leaving. Eight new residents live there now.
“We’re not doing this for success. We’re doing this to bring about change and healing, to help our community of people return in a way that’s healthy,” Stanley-Lockheart said. “I feel like we’re already breaking the mold.”
Both houses, each purchased for around $1 million, are funded by anonymous donors who have agreed to pay for all the operating expenses for three years, which the organization estimates is around $35,000 per resident each year.
Organizations from all over the country have reached out to the collective for advice on how to replicate the values and principles in the homes. Although Cruz advises them to pursue private funding streams through relationship building, he also doesn’t think the private sector should have to fund this work.
“I think it’s possible for the government to change, but they need to give power back to the community,” Cruz said.
For public-funded reentry to work and the standard of reentry to improve, Cruz believes the government would have to relinquish control and allow those with lived experience to sit at the helm.
This story was co-published with Oakland North.