By: Amy Dorman, MPP Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center
Insights from the 2022 Midwest Asset Building Conference
In June 2022, the MNJRC was invited to present our preliminary findings from the Returning Home Saint Paul pilot at the regional Midwest Asset Building Conference, held this year in Saint Paul, MN. The annual conference brings together practitioners, policy advocates, and researchers from across the region to strengthen efforts to disrupt the racial wealth divide in the Midwest.
The objective of our session was to highlight the rarely discussed challenges and possibilities characteristic of cross-sector partnerships, particularly those that address systemic disparities based on race.
From left to right: Muneer Karcher-Ramos, Director of the City of Saint Paul Office of Financial Empowerment; Andre Knight, Life Coach at Ujamaa Place; and Kahari Smith-Brewer, Housing Coordinator at HousingLink; Amy Dorman, Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center.
To do this, we invited our community partners from the City of Saint Paul, Ujamaa Place, and HousingLink to join us in a panel discussion around preliminary learnings and next steps for the Returning Home Saint Paul pilot program. The pilot, launched in December 2020, was designed to bridge the transition between re-entry and self-sufficiency for young Black men returning home to the Saint Paul community by increasing housing access through a cross-sector partnership model.
The MNJRC opened the session with a brief presentation to provide an overview of the pilot and some of the preliminary learnings from our one-year check-in report. Two key learnings we highlighted included the need for more holistic wraparound support for participants, particularly for fathers, and the importance of establishing strong, consistent communication and relationship-building practices between partners.
Our panelists were then invited to share their insights and area expertise with the audience. We are thankful to our partners Muneer Karcher-Ramos, Director of the City of Saint Paul Office of Financial Empowerment, Andre Knight, Life Coach at Ujamaa Place, and Kahari Smith-Brewer, Housing Coordinator at HousingLink for joining us at this conference and in this work.
Below are some of the highlights from the panel.
What is one of your key takeaways from working on the Returning Home Saint Paul pilot program this last year?
Andre (Ujamaa Place): The keyword for me and from my participants is “hope.” A lot of our participants felt like they had a life sentence. They know that they made a bad decision and they felt that they paid their debt to society. But in trying to acquire safe and stable housing, they felt like, “Hey, I am labeled forever.” And so, it gave them hope to say, “I can put my past behind me. I'm moving forward. I'm in my community. I can be an integral part of my community, and I can live like everyone else and raise my family.”
Muneer (City of Saint Paul): I think the greatest lesson for me is that perfection is the enemy of greatness. I want us to be great and not perfect. As someone who's always looking from a policy perspective, it’s like, “Scale, scale, scale,” right? But scale isn't always about the numbers. It's about depth, hearing the narrative from participants, and recontextualizing from just thinking about a scalable policy perspective. It’s about being open to slowing down to resituate ourselves based on the realities of the men in the program.
Kahari (HousingLink): What I take away from this the most is the need for collaboration and understanding in regards to the renter, the landlord, and any organizations or agencies that are involved in that. There’s a need for understanding on the landlords’ side that everybody has the potential to go through things in life that might be a hindrance and it should only be a hindrance at that time. Individuals who are incarcerated should not have to drag that incarceration with them everywhere they go for the rest of their life. So, it's understanding that sometimes all someone needs is a little help.
What recommendations would you share with others working in this space or similar spaces?
Kahari (HousingLink): I would say that if you work with individuals in any capacity in which you are trying to assist them in finding housing, it is important to stress how much work and time the housing process takes. If you want to find a place to live, people who don't have barriers in the background still have to call upwards of 20 places just to find a place that they are interested in and that will accept them.
There's not a “cure all” to achieving just housing. It starts as individuals needing education to help them find employment, but then you also have to find a place to live. Then there’s often the need for financial assistance. So, helping these individuals find all of these resources is very important: it’s not just one thing or the other.
Andre (Ujamaa Place): I would say when you encounter an individual person, please encounter them with a non-judgmental type of mindset. People have made mistakes in their life, and people have paid for those mistakes, and people will move on. These guys are contributing members of society, they’re family men, and they can come in this room right here and they would talk to you and they would light this room up. So, please move with compassion and in a non-judgmental type of way.
Muneer (City of Saint Paul): I would encourage people to hold contempt for the narratives about residents returning from incarceration, and be angry and infuriated at the mental models that have been crafted around folks returning from incarceration. When Kahari shared that only 3% of landlords access the risk insurance pool that has been created, that rubs directly against these tropes that are out there about folks who have criminal backgrounds.
We should hold contempt around the fact that a risk insurance pool needs to exist. We should work on the narrative side, the policy side, and the programmatic side so residents returning home from incarceration are fully supported.
*Quotes have been edited for clarity.
You can watch the full session on our YouTube, here (Presentation starts at 0:00; Panel starts at 13:36). Recording courtesy of “AV for You”.
The Returning Home Saint Paul pilot evaluation is anticipated to run through Spring 2023. A final report will follow. Join the conversation by emailing us at: email@example.com.
Amy Dorman, MPP is a Research Manager at the Minnesota Justice Research Center and a PhD student at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.