Donna: From Prison To Homelessness…And Back To Prison

“Hey Pastor Chris.” she said, “do you have a hug for me?” It was a Sunday afternoon and church had just let out. My wife and I had stopped at the local convenience store to pick up some Gatorade for a homeless friend that was nursing the after-effects of binging meth. I had not seen Donna in almost two years and knew she had been in prison on drug-related charges in Georgia. She was one of the first homeless females that came to Impact! Ministries looking for help right after we launched in downtown Lakeland, Florida. She slept on our sanctuary floor for a few weeks, volunteered in our clothes bank and loved to sing with the worship songs each Sunday. One day she met a man on the streets who made promises of providing for her if she went with him to Atlanta. Though we all tried to persuade her not to go, one day we looked up and she had disappeared. Her family called several weeks later to let us know she had been arrested as a drug mule (running drugs from the supplier to the sellers) in the Macon, Georgia area. After two years behind bars she was now back in Lakeland – and apparently back on the streets.

Standing in front of the convenience store wearing high heels, a short skirt and heavy makeup I knew Donna was just getting off from “work”. Without hesitation I hugged her like a long-lost friend then called my wife over to join our conversation. We spent about 15 minutes talking to her that day. She told us stories about the things she had seen in Georgia (her very first time out of the state of Florida) and we invited her to come to Impact! for lunch that day. She declined, but said she would stop in later that week to see everyone. She told us she had a lead on a place to live and that her “job” was only temporary – it provided some money and a place to sleep that was off of the streets at night. We all prayed together and then Donna headed down the street looking for her next “customer”. Six weeks later she was arrested for prostitution and drugs. Some of the Impact! team went to her court date to provide support and hugged her one last time as she was led away in handcuffs for a 5-year prison sentence. We never saw Donna again.

The story of Donna is true, though I have changed her name out of respect for her and her family. Unfortunately it is a story that happens far too often with females that have been incarcerated. They go to prison because they have no options for self-sufficiency and end up back on the street homeless because they have nowhere to go once released. This past summer Impact! Ministries discovered that almost 80% of the homeless women we worked with had just been released from a state prison. With $100 on a prison-issued debit card and the clothes on their back donated from a local charity they were dropped off in the heart of downtown Lakeland with no support system, no job, no income and no place to stay. Many had never received any life skills training or job skills training while incarcerated – very few were even offered a chance to get a GED while in prison. In essence, it was set-up for total failure once they were released. As a result many ended up back in jail or prison before the summer was out. Most were picked up for drugs, prostitution or trespassing – all non-violent crimes, but enough to violate their parole.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2008 showed that people released from prison were 10 times more likely to end up homeless than that of the general public. The number was slightly higher for women.

– U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

The last time any organization did a study on the correlation between people being released from prison and people that are homeless was over a decade ago. A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2008 showed that people released from prison were 10 times more likely to end up homeless than that of the general public. The number was slightly higher for women. Last year the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative conducted another study – using the 2008 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey as a guide – to take a new look at those coming out of prison and those ending up homeless. They found that rates of homelessness are especially high among several specific demographics:

  • People who have been incarcerated more than once.
  • People recently released from prison.
  • People of color and women.

The entire report is disturbing and worth the time to read. It basically supports everything that Impact! Ministries saw this summer – the majority of women living in homelessness across America were once incarcerated. With more and more states turning their attention to punishment instead of rehabilitation for their inmates, very little skills training, job placement or educational opportunities are available to incarcerated women in the United States. They are released with little opportunity for a life that would prevent them from returning to prison. Statistics consistently show that women that have been incarcerated are the most vulnerable for becoming homeless or being sent back to prison.

For the past decade Denise (my wife) and I have been praying – and dreaming – about a ministry to incarcerated women that will help to provide a foundation for them to obtain a steady income, permanent housing and become self-sufficient upon their release. It will be a nationwide initiative combining education training before their parole and aftercare support through local churches once the women are out of prison. The idea is to eliminate the potential for homelessness for these women before it can occur and to provide a stable, supportive environment that will help them get on their feet for good. Though it will be called a different name, the initiative will function under the umbrella of Impact! Ministries. We plan to fund it by foundational grants for the actual ministry to women and private individual donations to cover salaries and operating expenses. We are in the final stages of submitting the legal documents for establishing the ministry and should be able to officially announce it next week.

In the meantime, Impact! Ministries continues to help women and families daily that are experiencing homelessness. We work hard to provide food, clothing, housing and support for those in need. Your continued prayers and financial support are greatly appreciate and go a long way to easing the pain of poverty for so many across Florida. For more information about how you can help, please click here.

5 Realities Of Poverty And Hurricanes

As Hurricane Dorian lumbers toward Florida, local residents are already starting to stock up on food, fuel, medical supplies and batteries. In a matter of days there will be no bread, water or milk on the grocery store shelves and long lines will form at the gas pumps. Some folks will choose to ride out the storm in their homes, while others will evacuate until the hurricane has passed. Even after the rain and winds have subsided, the clean up and rebuilding will take months. Occasional hurricanes are just one of the realities of living in Central Florida.

Two years ago, the Impact! Ministries‘ team learned another harsh reality of hurricanes whenHurricane Irma passed over the area – the impoverished are rarely able to properly prepare – or fully recover – from natural disasters. The lack of resources, disposable income and agencies willing to provide help make the effects of a hurricane even more severe for those living in systemic poverty. Many are at the mercy of landlords for getting damage fixed and most do not have transportation to agency centers that can offer financial assistance in the time of crisis. For weeks after Hurricane Irma the Impact! team spent our days patching roofs, clearing downed trees and taking people to area FEMA stations. We watched as the city ignored the most impoverished areas of Lakeland in order to restore power to the more affluent. For many folks in the area the hurricane was an inconvenience for a week. For the impoverished it was a life-changing event that many have not yet overcome.

When it comes to poverty and hurricanes, there are five realities to keep in mind:

1. Food Stamps are a limited resource.

SNAP – or what most people call “food stamps” – is a main source of financial income for impoverished families. With the assistance comes many rules and guidelines for the items SNAP can be used to purchase – which is basically non-prepared food only. This means that EBT cards cannot be used for batteries, flashlights, medical supplies, cleaning supplies or building materials. As a result, the items most needed for dealing with a hurricane are never acquired by the impoverished. Even after the storm has moved on, electricity is slow to be restored which means that EBT cards cannot be processed at grocery stores. While many restaurants are up and running within days of a major hurricane, SNAP guidelines will not allow the purchase of hot food or prepared meals (unless you are designated “homeless” by the U.S. Government). After Hurricane Irma the Impact! team discovered dozens of impoverished senior adults that had gone days without a meal. They found that their EBT cards would not work and they did not have the cash to afford local restaurant food.

2. No disposable income.

Those living in systemic poverty do not have a “rainy day fund” for cash purchases in the time of crisis. There is no way to set money aside or create a savings account for emergencies. Many live in fixed-income homes, going from paycheck-to-paycheck, wading through endless red tape to receive government assistance and experiencing the daily fear of food insecurity. When hurricanes are approaching, federal buildings are usually the first to close – which means those in the process of reapplying for SNAP (which must happen every 3 to 6 month) are delayed. Mail service is usually discontinued for several days which affects those waiting on government assistance checks. Because power is out EBT transfers for SNAP assistance doesn’t happen. As a result many living in poverty go without food, basic necessities or proper living conditions as a result of hurricanes and the lack of disposable income.

3. Lack of transportation.

When a hurricane strikes, public transportation is one of the first things to be shut down – and one of the last things to be restored. A large portion of those experiencing poverty have no vehicles and rely on public transportation each day to get around. When city buses are discontinued – even for a few days – it severely limits folks’ ability to get to supplies, shelter, friends or loved ones or to government assistance agencies after the storm. After Hurricane Irma cellular reception still existed – though spotty in some areas. However, the only way to power a dying cell phone battery was by using a car charger for an hour or so. Electricity was out in most places across the county. With no vehicle, the impoverished has no way of charging a cell phone or making a call in a time of emergency. One of the many services that Impact! Ministries provided after the storm was charging stations based out of our vehicles as we were taking folks to FEMA stations.

4. Agencies are slow to respond.

After a hurricane many city, county, state and federal agencies are slow to respond with clean up, supplies and assistance. In the hours following Hurricane Irma the Southern Baptist Convention’s SEND Relief trucks were the first to arrive with help and assistance. In contrast, it took almost a week for FEMA to get their people set up in the area and the Red Cross never showed. While slow disaster response is difficult on everyone that has made it through a weather-related crisis, it is especially tough for the impoverished. Basic necessities such as food, water, ice, fuel and medical supplies are hard to come by after a hurricane – but are even more difficult when you have no way to afford them. As stated above, when someone lives in systemic poverty there is no “rainy day” fund for such emergencies. Even when FEMA began taking applications for financial assistance after Irma, it was weeks to months before those finances were provided. In many cases the impoverished had already been evicted from their homes, were relying on friends, family or churches for basic food items or had left the city entirely in order to find better resources elsewhere.

5. Landlords take the money and run.

Shady landlords use hurricanes or other natural disasters to take advantage of the impoverished. Most landlords have more than enough insurance coverage to fix any wind damage caused by a hurricane. However, the deductible is based on 5% of the total value of the home. Shady landlords will apply for government assistance through FEMA and use that money to pay off the deductible on their insurance coverage. As this process is taking place the landlord will keep the tenants out of the home “until repairs can be made”. The tenants think they do not have to pay rent since they are not actually in the home. After 30-days this non-payment constitutes a breach of the rental contract and the landlord can thus rent the home to someone else – calling the repairs an “upgrade” and charging a higher rental rate than before the hurricane. The original renter has little legal recourse when this happens. After Hurricane Irma, Impact! Ministries came across several instances where shady landlords received FEMA money AND the insurance payout, but never made the repairs. As Hurricane Dorian continues heading toward Florida, many roofs in impoverished areas around Lakeland still have blue taros on them from Hurricane Irma damage.

Before We Begin, Five Things You Should Know About Me

To be honest, it took a very long time, significant amount of prayer and much outside counsel before I decided to start writing again. I love to write and share ideas that challenge the norm. However I knew that writing on subjects like poverty, gentrification, prison reform, the Church and leadership in the 21st Century – particularly in today’s political climate in America – could be somewhat controversial, cause me to lose friends or bring about the loss of supporters for Impact! Ministries. I may be an advocate for the impoverished and incarcerated , but I do not share the opinions for overcoming homelessness, crime, systemic poverty, inmate aftercare and gentrification that many people do these days. Mainly, my thoughts, beliefs and proposed solutions come from direct work and close proximity with the impoverished and incarcerated for the past 15+ years. In my experience, I have seen the overly compassionate, hand out with no parameters, non-confrontational, semi-socialist mode of “helping” the less fortunate actually do more harm than good. Coddling those with lifelong addictions, providing unlimited food or shelter to the chronically homeless, welfare payouts with no limits or requirements, the constant meddling by city planners to “combat” affordable housing and the Church’s failure to properly assume the role of caregiver that God instructed in the New Testament has left America in crisis.

Coddling those with lifelong addictions, providing unlimited food or shelter to the chronically homeless, welfare payouts with no limits or requirements, the constant meddling by city planners to “combat” affordable housing and the Church’s failure to properly assume the role of caregiver that God instructed in the New Testament has left America in crisis.

– Rev. Chris Elrod

In essence, our system for dealing with the impoverished and incarcerated in America is broke. I’m all for compassion, but sympathy without accountability brings no solutions. I’m all for helping others, but “hand outs” instead of “hand ups” leads to ongoing systemic poverty. I’m all for treating people with dignity, but where there is no honesty there is no realization of the need for change. As I’ve heard many of my pastor friends say, “It IS okay to be not okay. It is NOT okay to stay not okay!” Unfortunately, the way in which we handle the poverty-stricken, perpetually addicted and constantly incarcerated in America serves only to remind people that it is okay to be not okay – it is okay to stay not okay – don’t worrying about overcoming or bettering yourselves – we’ll provide your every need from now on. There is something just fundamentally – and Scripturally – wrong with that mentality and approach. It is NOT working and serves only to make the problem and crisis worse!

As I’ve heard many of my pastor friends say, “It IS okay to be not okay. It is NOT okay to stay not okay!”

– Rev. Chris Elrod

Before I began wiring on a regular basis I felt a need to explain myself a little, to set some ground rules for commenting and establish that there must be wholesale change in how America approaches poverty and prisons. With that in mind, here are five things you should know about me before we go any further

1. God’s Word is the ultimate authority in my life.
As a Christian and a pastor of the Southern Baptist Convention my ultimate authority in life is the Bible, I believe that it is God-inspired and without error. My belief in – and guidance from – holy Scripture supersedes any thoughts, ideas or opinions provided by other resources or people. At times, this puts me at odds with modern thinking and political correctness in America.

2. I’m a registered independent that has voted for both Democrat and Republican candidates.
I am a registered Independent. This is not a political move, it just allows me to sleep better at night knowing I’m not affiliated with a specific political party. However, in my professional life I do work with many politicians from both sides of the aisle. One day I may be meeting with a Republican senator’s social justice liaison in Washington, DC. The next day I may be sitting on a panel discussion about gentrification at a state Democrat Party gathering. In my assessments and solutions concerning the impoverished and the incarcerated in America I never let political agendas play into my thought process. Both parties are – at times – right and wrong about certain aspects concerning welfare, healthcare, addiction treatment and prison reform. One of my goals is to get both sides to come together to develop common sense solutions that actually work.

3. Every day I work with, live in and am friends with the impoverished.
Six years ago my wife and I felt a calling from God to leave the nice country home we lived in and move into a run-down rental house in a neighborhood plagued by poverty, drugs and gang activity. We spend quote a but of time with our neighbors each week. Soon after we moved, we also planted a church that was in the heart of the homeless community of Lakleand, Florida. Every night 30-40 homeless and addicted people would sleep in the sanctuary. We loved many of those folks through their addictions and remain friends with them to this day We regularly have the homeless stay in our house overnight, spend our own money to provide clothing for them, take them out for meal, get them to medical appointments and walk alongside them as they struggle with their demons. In essence, I am not standing on the sidelines writing about the impoverished – I am living it every day. Some of my best friends have no roof over their head and spend every day hustling for money to buy drugs or alcohol. I love every one of them and value our relationship!

4. I spend a lot of time in prison working with the incarcerated.
I spent six years working with Prison Fellowship as a platform guest with Operation Starting Line. As a result I was in hundreds of state and federal prisons nationwide each year working directly with the inmate population. I still go into several dozen prisons all over America each year to hang out with inmates, show them the love of Christ, teach them skills needed for re-entry and share the Gospel with them. I also work on their behalf with politicians and law enforcement agencies to bring about significant prison reform. Finally, the church I formerly pastored worked hard to provide aftercare to multiple ex-inmates and help them become re-established into society. As a result I speak at many churches across the United States each year about the Church’s role in prison reform.

5. I rarely make time to argue with people online.
Feel free to leave comments, but do not expect a reply from me in most cases. While I value and – at times – enjoy lively debate, I rarely have the time for it. Most of the debates I participate in are usually in-person with other advocates or experts dealing with the homeless, addiction and inmate crisis in America. They come with well-prepared thoughts and verifiable facts – and the goal of creating solutions. However I find that most “debates” online basically come down to name calling, rehashing last night’s cable news’ commentator or stating facts gleaned from a meme seen on Facebook. It is mainly personal opinions or political agendas rarely backed by experience or true education of the facts. I don’t mind it, I just don’t have the time to respond to it. Be passionate and lively – comment as much as you want – but be considerate and professional. If it gets personal or nasty (“Hey Elrod, you are a heartless thug that probably kicks kittens while cussing out your mama…”), I’ll delete it and block you from the site.

I find that most “debates” online basically come down to name calling, rehashing last night’s cable news’ commentator or stating facts gleaned from a meme seen on Facebook.

– Rev. Chris Elrod

Why take the time to share a little about myself? Mainly because I want the readers of this blog to understand that my ideas, solutions and proposals are not coming from some cable news anchor, a politician looking to score points with a quick soundbyte, a ultra-conservative evangelical pastor I heard at a leadership conference or an op-ed piece from a newspaper journalist. They come from experience – day after day experience – of working one-on-one with the impoverished and incarcerated. I certainly do not expect every one to agree with me – or even like the things I post – but I at least wanted people to know where I was coming from.

Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy post. Not all of them will be this long or be so self-serving. Next week I’ll be back with post about the five reasons why welfare in America is not working and needs a complete overhaul.