Successful Reentry Program: The Fortune Society
The Fortune Academy, or "The Castle," the Fortune Society's emergency and long-term residence for 62 formerly incarcerated men. (Photo credit: David Y. Lee, The Fortune Society)
The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) admitted 87, 515 people into the city’s jail system during FY2011. 77.7% of these individuals were admitted previously, and even more concerning, 44% were readmitted within a year of being released from the city’s jail system. These statistics illustrate how challenging the transition from jail and/or prison to society can be for previously incarcerated individuals and the urgent need for successful reentry efforts to help them overcome their specific barriers.
New York City’s The Fortune Society addresses issues of reentry from prison/and or jail and also works to promote alternatives to incarceration by providing a one-stop shop of holistic services including: Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI), drop-in services, employment services, education, family services, health services, housing services, substance abuse treatment, transitional services such as the Rikers Island Discharge Enhancement (R.I.D.E.) program, recreation, and lifetime aftercare.
Glenn E. Martin, the Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at The Fortune Society, explains that the impetus for a one-stop shop model of holistic services is that “clients are involved in a web of agencies trying to get their lives together”; connecting clients to each part of this web in one place alleviates the complexity of doing all of this work on their own. The clients may not know what public benefits they have access to, if they qualify for public housing, or just how to navigate life outside of incarceration. For this reason, The Fortune Society offers clients access to legal service providers to assist with obtaining public benefits and it even provides its own transitional, transition in place, and permanent housing units to supplement the lack of immediate housing available to its client population.
The Fortune Society’s Housing Program
The Fortune Society began its housing programs about ten years ago to address a growing need among their clients: while many clients were being connected to other services, they were not completing programs like substance abuse treatment or employment programs. This, Martin mentioned, is typical for individuals without a quick connection to a secure residence upon release. Martin notes that “when clients do not have stable housing, it negatively impacts their success in other [Fortune Society] programs.” This is especially true within the first year of release, which is when formerly incarcerated individuals are most at-risk for reincarceration. “Now that we have housing, we can’t imagine not having a housing program,” adds Martin.
At the heart of The Fortune Society’s housing program are two residential facilities located in West Harlem. The first, called FortuneAcademy (aka The Castle), provides emergency and longer-term housing for 62 formerly incarcerated individuals. The second, called CastleGardens, is a new mixed-use, green, supportive and affordable residential community and service center. It provides supportive and affordable housing and essential services at the same site without preconditions.
Providing a stable environment for formerly incarcerated individuals that do not have the means to access housing on their own can help to break the cycle of homelessness and incarceration that is all too common. Access more research here on studies linking high risk of homelessness to incarceration.
What makes The Fortune Society’s efforts successful?
There were two primary things that Martin emphasized about the Fortune Society that have contributed to its success, all of which can be integrated into programs that serve only formerly incarcerated individuals or organizations that serve the broader population of individuals experiencing homelessness. It is important for homeless service providers generally to understand the unique situation and barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals now face in every aspect of their lives. By providing culturally competent services and building transparent relationships with outside organizations, city agencies, and community members, organizations can learn from the success of The Fortune Society and improve their organizations in serving this population.
Culturally Competent Services
The Fortune Society published the toolkit Employing Your Mission—Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies, which was praised by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and located on the National Reentry Resource Center's website.
The toolkit highlights the barriers that previously incarcerated individuals face upon reentry in terms of housing, employment, and accessing public benefits. Offering programs to address these barriers is one piece of the puzzle, but a significantly vital piece is creating culturally competent programs. Martin shared that to achieve cultural competence at The Fortune Society, the organization employs formerly incarcerated individuals to reflect the experiences and realities of the population the organization serves. To date the organization has over 190 employees of whom approximately 70% are formerly incarcerated and/or have histories of substance use disorder or homelessness. In addition, as written in the organization’s by-laws, one-third of the Board of Directors must be formerly incarcerated. “This helps our clients see employees in positions at all levels of the organization with histories like theirs – and shows them that one day it could be them. A staff with an understanding of a client’s experience first-hand helps us to have a vision for them when they may not have a vision for themselves,” says Martin.
Martin, formerly incarcerated himself, illustrated the benefit of this hiring practice when he shared a story about a former client who had stopped utilizing The Fortune Society’s programs after he received a subway pass. The client took the subway pass and sold it so he could purchase drugs on the street. He continued to spiral down for some time and then when he was in a particularly low place he remembered how well he was treated while at The Fortune Society. This memory encouraged him to return to The Fortune Society where he began accessing programs and housing to get his life on track. At the recommendation of staff members who understand and have faced the challenges of reentry, The Fortune Society prioritizes clients who have dropped out of its programs and returned for services. Today the former client is a success story of The Fortune Society.
Building Strong Relationships with Outside Organizations, City Agencies & Community Members
Martin advised that organizations working on the issue of reentry be mindful of two things: 1) no one agency can get this work done on its own, so let that inform your interactions with other organizations; and 2) be transparent and do not let other organizations, agencies, or people from the community assume anything about your organization.
In order to implement Martin’s advice, he suggested that organizations open up their office or facility space to government entities for events, whether they are hosted by your own organization or the government entity. It is important for other people to become familiar with your space and your work, and this is a great way of doing so.
An example of achieving transparency and building strong relationships occurred when The Fortune Society proposed and embarked on the development of its first residential facility, Fortune Academy. There was intense community opposition to the proposed location of the residence intended to house previously incarcerated individuals, and The Fortune Society reacted by inviting the community members who opposed the building’s location to become part of a community advisory board. This gave the individuals a venue to voice their concerns, but also learn more about The Fortune Society, its work, and the complexities of the approximately 3,000 people it serves annually. This strategy proved fruitful and can be found discussed in greater detail in The Fortune Society’s toolkit In Our Backyard: Overcoming Community Resistance to Reentry Housing.