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Article 10 of 11-Part Series
Program Gives Senior Ex-Offenders a Second Chance
By Omar Fekeiki
SAN FRANCISCO — When Freddie Kidd was released from prison more than ten years ago, he returned to his neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point looking for a shelter. In the end, he found more — a home.
"When you come out of jail, you have nothing," he said. "You've got no money, no place to go to and no job. You hit rock bottom."
It's one thing to do so as a young man, but Kidd was 57 and after 18 years in prison for more than a dozen crimes, he was ready to reform.
"Freddie had to be a good Freddie," he said he decided.
The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco is unique for its history of black migration, its diversity and its growing real estate market, but it also has the only Senior Ex-Offenders Program in the United States according to Frank Williams, director of the program.
The program started in 2002 when community leaders and members of the Multipurpose Senior Center board became increasingly concerned about the number of elderly coming back to the neighborhood after being released from prison. The returnees were overlooked, community leaders said, and their needs went unanswered.
"There is stigma placed upon them because they are ex-offenders," said Williams.
The idea in the beginning was to help recently released seniors to get their basic needs including, employment, health care and low-price public transportation passes.
Kidd is one beneficiary. After serving 18 months in prison, he was released in 1994 and found that his old neighborhood failed to welcome him home. He couldn't find a place to stay or a job so he stayed in his aunt's house and depended on the neighborhood's senior services for food and clothes.
When the Senior Ex-Offenders Program was launched, Kidd went and asked for help.
The program helped Kidd to get a job. Ironically, he now teaches elementary school kids how to "grow up in a proper way," he said. He uses his personal experience to explain to kids "how being 'the tough guy' is not the right way to deal with people," he said.
"I don't want kids to go in the wrong way," Kidd said.
Kidd said he also developed a "three-day process" to teach kids how to tie their shoes.
"It's a tough job and I taught them how to do it," he said cheerfully.
One of the major challenges the senior ex-offenders program has to deal with, according to its director Williams, is the way the community treats them. Seniors and young residents released from jail have to endure the community's ill treatment.
Just being an ex-offender, Williams said, is a lot to deal with. But even those who maintain good behavior still find people looking at them as former neighbors who were once in prison.
"That stigma alone causes anger, it causes anxiety, it causes frustration," Williams said. It also can cause "mental health disorders and depression because of readjustment. Some of them may have post traumatic stress," from incarceration. In some cases, he said, this will result in a breakdown that will eventually force the person to commit another crime and end up in prison again.
By helping the senior ex-offenders to get jobs and blend into the community creates "a socially positive behavior," Williams said. "The people who used to see them do wrong, they see them right back in the community doing god stuff. It helps a lot."
But employment isn't the only problem the ex-offenders have to deal with. Housing is a problem, too.
"The only thing available for them is shelters," Williams said adding that there should be other options.
Kidd and Williams said that even "Ranchers don't want to rent out to people who are ex-offenders."
Williams and other community leaders convinced the Metropolitan Baptist Church in the neighborhood to let the program manage an apartment it owned and rent to senior ex-offenders. They envisioned the six-bedroom apartment as the first step in solving the housing problem, Williams said.
Transitional House, as it is called now, opened in February 2004 and holds up to six residents.
Kidd, who had been living with his aunt since he was released in 1994, rents a room there.
"It was the first time in a long time I felt I had a home to go back to," Kidd said who now shares it with three other residents. "I don't have to worry about where I am going to sleep today."
|© 2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism|