First Person

Serving Time and Creating a Second Chance Economy

Americans believe in the idea that everyone should get a second chance—a chance to redeem ourselves and make things right. This is a guiding principle behind a “second chance economy”—one that would offer opportunity for approximately 650,000 people released from prison every year in America, and for tens of millions of others who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

I’m one of those Americans who committed a crime and have a criminal conviction. At one point, I was just like the two-thirds of people who are released from prison or jail only to commit a crime again, be rearrested and convicted.

I know some people may say that I deserve to live in poverty because of my mistakes. But they don’t know my story. They don’t know that I was born to an abusive father and a mother with severe mental illness; or that I was given narcotics as a young child by a relative who was supposed to care for me, but instead molested me and sold my pictures through a child pornography ring. They don’t know that by the time I was 12, I was on the streets, on my way to a life of crime and addiction, and—with no adult to care for me or advocate for me—I was in and out of the juvenile justice system, never receiving the mental health care I needed.

Truth is, I don’t care if people know these things about me or not, because I love myself now and that is what matters. But I do care that people have another chance after their arrest or conviction.

I’m on the right track now, doing right by myself, my god, my family and my community. One of the ways I’m giving back to my community is by working to create an economy that includes me and others who have served our time and are following the rules of probation or parole.  A study released by the Vera Institute of Justice found that states across the country are giving people like me a second chance not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will reduce crime and prison costs by preventing recidivism.

No one should go hungry for a crime that they have served time for, especially if they are following the rules now.

One obstacle to opportunity that many states are addressing is the lifetime ban on receiving public benefits and job assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for people who have a prior drug-related felony conviction. Research has shown that this policy increases recidivism and crime and is also harmful to children as well as adults who are trying to start over.  In addition to causing hunger and hardship, it can also prevent people from getting the mental health or substance abuse treatment they need, as many of these programs rely on public assistance funding to pay individuals’ room and board. Repeal of this harmful policy has been supported by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and is included in the REDEEM Act, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul.

Federal law already allows states to waive or modify the ban, and many have done so. For example, this April, California lifted the lifetime ban on TANF and SNAP so that people with a felony drug conviction who are complying with their probation or parole are now eligible for nutrition assistance, income support, and job training. Approximately 6,000 families in the state now experience hunger less often, have access to job training and employment services, and their children are no longer denied child care. For me, the biggest change is the child care help that I am able to receive for the first time. After my release and getting sober, it was hard to build a new life with my son when he was denied childcare because of my conviction. Not only was it hard for me to find work—he missed out on the great opportunities offered through childcare programs.

In June, Texas modified its lifetime ban so that people with a felony drug conviction are now eligible for SNAP (although a parole violation would lead to a “two-year disqualification”, and a second felony drug conviction would result in a lifetime ban).  Last year, Missourians took similar action so that people with felony drug convictions are able to receive nutrition assistance while participating in substance abuse treatment, as long as they are following the rules of probation or parole.  While fourteen states including California have opted out of the lifetime ban entirely, two-thirds of states continue to enforce the ban—or a modified version of it, as in Texas and Missouri.

In my opinion, no one should go hungry for a crime that they have served time for, especially if they are following the rules now. I’ve gone hungry and it is an experience no human should have to go through—especially not in America, since we have the resources to prevent hunger. Being hungry also doesn’t help people who have had an addiction stay straight, or stay away from crime.

This is why I have worked with a whole bunch of people and organizations over the past couple of years to end this unfair and unsafe lifetime ban on assistance. It isn’t easy telling my story to others, but it has made a difference. Sometimes I forget how messed up my childhood was and how far I’ve come, but I will never forget this harmful policy, how it made me feel, and how it made me feel to end it.


First Person

Taking on My Bucket List (and Homelessness)

Before I was homeless, I had a good life. I wasn’t rich, but I was far from poor, with two fairly successful small businesses (Kai’s Mobile Auto Detailing and MerMaids Maid Service) and a rental house on Maui. I drove a Mercedes 300E and my wife had a Nissan Sentra. We had no debt.

So, how did I end up homeless? I keep wondering where I went wrong.

In December 2011, I had my first seizure. On top of that, I was having marital problems and losing clients left and right due to the bad economy. Over the next few months, I averaged 2 to 3 seizures a week and was in and out of the hospital. My wife split somewhere around that time. My businesses fell apart while I wasn’t there to run them, and I spent all my savings trying to hang on instead of cutting my losses and saving what I could. By the time I got evicted, I couldn’t even afford a storage unit. I left my house with what I could fit in a red wagon and a suitcase.

I managed to get a job as a maintenance man at the Maui Sunset, a timeshare condo complex, but I was still having seizures. My doctor was convinced that they were caused by heavy metal toxicity (due to a bullet that has been in my leg for twenty years), and he put me through chelation therapy twice a week for three months. But due to the horrible side effects, I wasn’t able to maintain my job. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (heart disease) and I was told that without a transplant I had two years.

Let’s face it – the chances for a homeless man with epilepsy getting on the donor list are pretty slim. My seizures are now followed by 12 hours of sight loss. And I had to wonder – is this what it comes down to? I die alone, on the streets? Nothing to leave behind? Very few people to grieve my passing?

In a weird moment of clarity that you get when you have nothing else to lose, I decided I wanted to take a bucket list tour of the United States with my little dog Savannah to see and do all of the things that I have always wanted to do.

First off, I had heard of this place in Eugene, Oregon called Opportunity Villagetiny homes for the homeless. It was touted as the city’s unique approach to solving the homeless problem. Originally I thought that I would make that a stop on my trip, pick up the plans, and bring them back to Maui to start a village there. But when I got there my impression was that it was a group of homeless people that kept taking over city property until the city just let them stay. No plans, and nothing to bring back to Maui.

Savannah and I have been on the road for more than a year now. We left Maui on June 19, 2014. We have visited just about all of the things on my bucket list: Disneyland, the Smithsonian museums in D.C. (still missing the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and the National Postal Museum), and Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey. I’m also a huge fan of the show Comic Book Men, and I got to spend time with the stars.

Right now, we are in Washington D.C. We have been harassing Senate staffers in order to find a Senator who will sponsor legislation for a national Homeless Bill of Rights but it’s just really hard to do without an address. I now have cards from the offices of all one hundred Senators. I even put them in alphabetical order by state. Since Rhode Island was the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, I have been able to get some response from Senator Jack Reed’s staff.

As time passes, I look more and more like just another “crazy homeless guy,” and who knows, maybe I am just another crazy homeless guy. I feel like no one is listening or taking me seriously. I have no resources or backing of any kind, and these people deal with the powerful and wealthy all day long. I wish this were like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But it feels more like Oliver Twist saying, “Please sir, may I have some rights?”



Remembering Katrina in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

This is an excerpt from a post that first appeared at Medium.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, thousands of people were displaced, and at least 1,800 people were killed. The country watched in disbelief as residents—a disproportionate number of whom were black—pleaded for help on rooftops as then-President George W. Bush watched from afar—first from Washington, D.C., then overhead from a helicopter. All the while, the city’s poorest community, the Lower Ninth Ward, had up to 12 feet of water sitting stagnant in some areas for weeks. It was the last place to have power and water service restored, and the last to have the flood waters pumped out.

Despite the dire circumstances, news outlets and law enforcement quickly began to label the black residents as “looters.” They were not viewed as people trying to survive, but rather as criminals who needed to be reined in. New Orleans Police Department Captain James Scott instructed police officers that they had the “authority by martial law to shoot looters.”

Even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

And that’s what they did: All told, 11 people were shot by law enforcement officials following the storm. The most well-known incident occurred six days after Katrina hit, when members of the NOPD—unprovoked and armed with assault rifles—stormed the Danziger Bridge and began firing on a group of unarmed civilians in search of food. Two people were killed, including a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and a 17-year-old high school student. Four more were seriously injured, including three members of the Bartholomew family. Leonard Bartholomew suffered a gunshot wound to the head, his daughter was wounded in the abdomen, and his wife Susan lost an arm due to the severity of the gun blast that hit her. Five officers were arrested and convicted. Ten years later, the Bartholomew family’s civil suit remains unsettled.

The feeling that black lives did not matter was most famously summed up by rapper Kanye West when he stated firmly during a primetime telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

As Hurricane Katrina revealed, the consequences of poverty, segregation, police brutality, and environmental racism coming to a head have tragic results.

Amidst the growing threat of climate change, this perfect storm must not be forgotten. While an extreme weather event, such as a flood, heat wave, or hurricane may seem like an equal opportunity force of destruction, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying injustices that exist in our communities year round. Understanding just how vulnerable low-income, black communities are to these threats is critical to protecting black lives in the 21st century.

Today, much of New Orleans is back to normal, with more than half of the city’s neighborhoods reaching their pre-storm population levels. However, that’s far from the case for the infamous Lower Ninth Ward. In the years following Katrina, only about 37 percent of households have returned home. Black residents who wanted to rebuild simply couldn’t afford to as federal aid was allocated based on home values rather than the cost of construction. The average gap between the damage accrued and the grants awarded to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward was $75,000, more than twice the average household income of the residents there.

As Professor Beverly Wright of Loyola University New Orleans explained, “pre-storm vulnerabilities continue to limit the participation of thousands of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery. In these communities, days of hurt and loss have become years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.”

Hurricane Katrina exposed that even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

Today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement—a national call to action and response against “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes” —is focused on just that. The movement demands accountability of law enforcement, while affirming the need to invest in low-income, black communities “in order to create jobs, housing and schools.” It is this last demand that is often left out of media discussions of the movement, but is critical to the health, wealth, and well-being of African American families.

Read the full text of Tracey’s column here.

For further commentary from Tracey on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, check out the latest TalkPoverty Radio podcast, which she co-hosts with Rebecca Vallas.



Civil Legal Aid Must Play a Larger Role in Disaster Recovery

I can barely believe it was 10 years ago that Hurricane Katrina upended our corner of the world. Almost two thousand lives were lost and there are damages of $108 billion dollars and counting, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

In the terrible aftermath of a natural disaster, everyone recognizes the importance of water, food, and shelter as a first response. But one thing many people don’t think about is this: providing access to expert civil legal help is absolutely essential to rebuilding communities and lives.

Immediately after Katrina, people who had lost their jobs needed help getting their final paychecks from businesses and employers that no longer existed. Some landlords rented out damaged and dangerous properties with the promise of quick repairs that never happened. Other landlords found it profitable to rent out the same residence simultaneously to different desperate families

Moreover, a year after the storm, FEMA, claiming it overpaid thousands of hurricane victims, sent more than 150,000 collection letters. Insurance companies claimed that much of the damage was due to flooding, and that the policies they had issued did not cover those losses. And, to qualify for repair funds, people whose family records had been destroyed by the storm or who had never officially filed documents in probate court suddenly needed to prove they owned houses that had been passed down for generations. These challenges were amplified for the region’s most financially vulnerable individuals and families.


For 10 years, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a civil legal aid organization I run, has been on the front lines helping people recover from the storm. When a landlord displaced nearly 300 families in order to charge higher rent, we challenged him in court. When lack of clear property titles threatened the ability of homeowners to access millions of rebuilding funds administered by the government, our staff and volunteer attorneys helped them clear the legal hurdles. As scam contractors exploited families who were trying to rebuild their homes, legal aid attorneys held them accountable in court. I’m proud to say we have provided assistance to nearly 400,000 people. We continue to represent Katrina survivors today, as Katrina remains our single largest civil legal aid challenge in our nation’s history.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson about the importance of providing civil legal aid after disasters. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, only $1 million out of the $60 billion appropriated by Congress was earmarked for civil legal aid.

If you have doubts about why we should make sure people have legal help, consider this: even today, SLLS is battling shady contractors who never rebuilt roofs or kitchens as promised, but took their customers’ money and skipped town. And FEMA—still claiming they overpaid people—is taking money from seniors’ social security checks.

I acknowledge that having access to a lawyer or some sort of legal support is not a magic fix. But it is an underappreciated model for how we should react to future disasters. Just as we have rebuilt even stronger levees to protect New Orleans, we should strengthen civil legal aid to protect our nation’s families and increase access to justice.


First Person

Finding Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina

Editor’s note: This first-person narrative of living through Hurricane Katrina is adapted from Gerald Anderson’s newly published memoir, Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of New Orleans, and from his “My Katrina” series that was originally published in Street Sense.

Ten years ago at the age of 37, Gerald Anderson was evacuated to D.C. after rescuing victims during the flooding in New Orleans. Busses took him and other Katrina victims from the airport to the D.C. Armory and then moved him from one hotel to another. Finally, he was told to leave.

With no place to stay, he moved in with one of his homegirls from New Orleans. His friends were offered apartments, but because of his criminal record, no one would rent to him. He put up signs and did odd jobs to earn money. He also sold drugs, and before long he was back to the cycle of drugs, prison, and homelessness.

Meanwhile, his whole family was in Texas and with the help of the Internet, he was able to find and contact his mother, siblings, and nephews shortly after arriving in D.C. Yet he had no means to visit.

Everything began to change when he learned he could write for and sell Street Sense. He was so beloved by his customers that in 2013 they pooled airline miles to send him back to New Orleans to visit, eight years after Katrina.

But six months later, when he missed two visits to his parole officer, and hence two urine tests, he had to appear in court. His urine tested positive for drugs. The judge could have sent him back to prison; instead she sentenced him to a drug treatment program.

That was in April 2014. Within three months Anderson moved to a recovery home in Arlington, Virginia and has been drug-free ever since. As soon as he received copies of his book, he went right over to the courthouse to visit the judge and sign a copy for her.

Anderson has built a new family in D.C.—his Street Sense customers—and he plans to remain living in the area. In the future he plans to mentor young men, so that they won’t make the mistakes he made.

~Susan Orlins

It was the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

While my three friends and I were paddling in a boat that we’d found at an evacuated house in the rich folks’ part of town, we saw another friend Calio screaming for help. His girlfriend, Michelle, was in labor inside their house.

The flooding was so high that there was no way to get her out. So we fought the waves to get tools and a ladder into the living room from a shed out back. And then—with Michelle screaming and writhing the whole time—we pounded at the ceiling until, finally, we broke through to the sky. Calio climbed the ladder and poked his head and arms above the roof. He waved a white sheet as we held tight to the base of the ladder and prayed for help.

Meanwhile, the military had been dropping boxes containing food and water that hit with big splashes and then floated. Inside the boxes we found hot packs of Salisbury steak, peas, mashed potatoes, and Snickers.

I went upstairs to feed Michelle’s two boys, who were eight and twelve. They were huddled together wide-eyed on the bed they shared.

They wanted to know, “What’s happening?”

“The water gonna come in here?”

“Mama gonna be okay?”

I told them, “Mama be fine. Soon y’all have a new baby.”

Like the rest of us, they relieved themselves in a bucket, which we emptied into plastic bags.

After about forty minutes of wondering whether help would ever come, we heard a whirring sound from a helicopter circling right above that made the whole house vibrate.

And then we heard Calio talking to someone.

He yelled down that he’d gotten a helicopter’s attention.

“Tell them to come down quick!” I called.

We heard the brrrrrm of the helicopter getting louder. Calio came down the ladder, and told us, “The helicopter man say move our ladder. They gonna get in here. Now!”

We looked up and saw the guy stepping down this wiggly ladder that was attached to the helicopter, which was hovering above the roof.

Three more guys came down. One asked, “Man, why didn’t she leave?”

They told Michelle to stay calm, to open her legs, to breathe. She was screaming and crying. I could hardly bear to watch.

Next we knew, a slimy infant was oozing out between her legs. A medic stroked the little body, and a squeaky whaaa whaaa came out of its tiny mouth.

Maybe it was an hour later that they put the baby in a sack—like a duffle bag—and hauled him up their ladder and through the roof. One of the guys wrapped Michelle in a big sling and towed her up next to be with her new son and escape the nightmare below.

Calio stayed with us. We tried to get him to go. The helicopter man asked him, “You sure you don’t want to come?”

He answered, “I’m just gonna stay. I know you gonna look after my family.” They had already taken Michelle’s other two boys up in sacks, and they offered to take the rest of us. But I replied, “No can do buddy.”

I still wasn’t believing it. I couldn’t imagine the storm getting any more intense, even though the helicopter man said, “I don’t know why y’all staying here. Ten hours from now it’s gonna hit. I’m telling y’all, get outta here!”

I said, “If it do hit, I know how to survive it. I survived this far. I’m not leaving my hometown.” I thought I was a smartie.

By the time I realized I should have listened, it was too late. I said to my boys, “I’m tellin’ you man, we better get back to the projects where it’s higher ground. We shoulda gone on that helicopter.”

Outside, toppled trees and tangled wires made it impossible to paddle, so we pushed the boat. I pointed to some cats that were mewing on rooftops and shouted, “They got more sense than we got!”

Along the way, we met a man whose roof had fallen in; he told us they were sleeping in the bathtub.  Another family huddled on their porch in prayer. I prayed too, with every move I made.

Beside us, dogs were trying to get help, just like us humans. Some had the mange with scabs and patches of missing fur. They were paddling like crazy, fighting the currents for their lives. Lifeless bloated bodies of little puppies floated by on top of the chin-high water.

That we were in the midst of a terrifying event was further made real by signs scrawled on houses: Please help us! People Dog Cat . . . Need food! . . . GRANDMA INSIDE NEEDS DIALYSIS! . . . Bush get down here right now!

You could hear screams of people trapped in their homes. That’s when I began thinking about those I had left behind when I was released from Orleans Parish Prison only a few weeks earlier. If I were still in a cell, what would be happening to me?

And with this thing getting rougher by the minute, I didn’t even want to imagine what guys were going through in “the hole,” an underground cell where you were sent for fighting or other misbehavior. In addition to unruly inmates, the hole was infested with rats running all over the place. Being below ground, it would surely get flooded.

I thought about my friend Smiley, who was always getting into fights. He’s probably in the hole right now, I thought.

And I thought about friends I had played cards and dominoes with. I even thought about a few deputies I was cool with that I used to talk to at night about the street and what I would do if I beat the charge.

Compared to my battle with Katrina, my time in prison was sweet like Mama’s pecan pie.

But now I worried that deputies would go home to their families and I wondered what would become of those left locked in their cells. It wasn’t until after the storm that I read accounts about deputies abandoning inmates, who were locked up without food and water. I heard that some prisoners knew how to file down toothbrushes and bush combs to make them into keys, which they used to pop the locks. Some, however, stayed behind trying to help others.

There was nothing anyone could do to rescue those behind steel doors—the guys in solitary. Several inmates suffered from conditions like diabetes and epilepsy and didn’t have their medication. Some never made it out.

Many of the prisoners who were left in the rising sewage waters without food or water were teenagers; many were being held for minor violations, and some had not even been charged. But compared to my battle with Katrina, my time in prison was sweet like Mama’s pecan pie.

Finally we got the boat back to the projects. We told every family that in less than ten hours Katrina would hit. The helicopter rescuers had told us, “When it hits, crouch down on the floor.” I thought this must be what it’s like in a plane that’s about to crash.

Yet I continued to question, Could this storm really get any worse? In ten hours, I would find out that so far, I had seen only the beginning.

My book tells the whole story about all the rescues I did with my homeboys and how we looked after folks in the projects.

After Katrina, I would sit in on myself; it was like I gave up. I got sent to prison for selling drugs and after being released I was homeless. I would pay to sleep on people’s floors. One guy locked me out and stole my clothes.

But now selling Street Sense and writing my stories are like big great activities to me. It rocks my body. It’s like club music, hip-hop, go-go – that’s how this process makes me feel.

Before, I didn’t know there was another way. It wasn’t until the judge sentenced me to drug treatment and I did so well, that I got a key to my own place, a recovery home in Virginia, where I live with nine other men.

Now, I know I’ve got somewhere to go, something to do.