Lending a helping hand
A prison sentence doesn’t always end when a person is released. Offenders often face an uphill battle when it comes to finding housing and employment, often to the detriment to themselves and others.
A 2008 study by the Urban Institute revealed that eight months after being released from prison, barely more than half of surveyed felons were employed. Felon or no, that many out of work adults can have as much as a $67 billion impact on the U.S. Economy, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research
Some of the difficulty in finding employment after prison comes in a variety of ways. People coming out of prison often have long gaps in their work history, low education and literacy rates. A lack of housing and transportation also create issues. The title of convicted felon also brings some baggage to the table. In an effort to make job finding easier for some felons, nine states have removed the conviction history question on job applications for private employers; 29 others have adopted measures that delay inquiries about convictions until later in the employment process to better give ex-offenders a chance to get hired based on their merits.
In Kinston, one organization actually uses that box to figure out exactly who to hire.
“The ones working with us are the ones are really good deep down. They want to be good parents to their children, they want to be good spouses to their mate, they want to be productive members of society and they, because of previous mistakes have just got themselves trapped,” said Chris Jenkins, founder of Hope Restorations. “Nobody will give them a shot.”
Nobody, except Jenkins.
Hope Restorations is a 501 c(3) nonprofit that aims to provide employment, training and support to adults recovering from addiction or recently released from incarceration.
Hope Restorations was officially founded in 2015, but the concept dates back to 2013. After losing his son to a combination of mental illness and substance abuse, Jenkins said he bought a house near Rochelle Middle School to restore as a way to keep himself busy on his days off.
While working on that house he met two men who were out of work and in need of work so he gave them a job working on the house.
“They needed a good honest way to feed their families. So I put those two men together in that house and I worked with them on my day off but the rest of the week let them work basically unsupervised,” he said.
Collectively the three men replaced the siding, roof, heating and air conditioning and added insulation to the house. It was then rented to a low-income family.
After that house was completed, Jenkins mortgaged it to buy another and set to work on that.
“I still needed that creative outlet and something to do and I had seen so many great benefits from me doing those houses. It was helping the communities, it was a family a good place to live, I was giving employment to folks that were otherwise hard to employ and I didn’t want to give that up,” he said.
Two years later, after some meetings with what would become the board of directors for Hope Restorations and some brainstorming, Hope Restorations was formed. The organization has begun taking properties that are in need of repair and renovating them.
The organization currently owns about 24 houses, most of which are being rented while the others are being worked on.
“There’s lots of these houses in Kinston that are abandoned or in such disrepair that are owned by people doing just enough upkeep to keep them rented. There’s lots that are abandoned, lots that are just starting to deteriorate because they’ve been inherited maybe by someone who has moved away from Kinston and they don’t have any desire to spend any money to fix it and then contract a real estate agent who is going to take a percent of the money they make on it,” Jenkins said.
Some of those houses ended up being donated to Hope Restorations, the rest the organization has bought outright using grant money.
Jenkins wants to see the number of houses managed by Hope Restorations to reach 45 in the future. At that point, the organization would become self-sustaining and be able to purchase all of it’s materials and equipment without relying on grants or donations.
For the men working inside the homes owned by Hope Restorations, the chance to get to work is a valuable one. The organization only has enough money to keep about 15 people on payroll at one time and has a waiting list for new hires.
Employees are overseen by volunteers with experience in electrical, HVAC, plumbing and other types of work on job sites. For those who find they enjoy the type of work they do for Hope Restorations, Jenkins wants to help find education and certification programs to help them be more marketable in specialized fields.
Rather than provide long term employment, the goal of the program is to give ex-offenders a chance to learn new skills and prove to other potential employers they can be reliable.
After an ex-offender leaves Hope Restorations to find a new job, Jenkins said he is happy to serve as a reference for them, but his reviews will be “brutally honest” with employers.
“I’m happy to tell an employer that this person is a good worker, he is ready for that chance, but I’m also willing to say this person isn’t quite ready yet,” he said.
Jenkins said his honesty is more about making sure employers know that when a new hire comes from Hope Restorations, they’ve proven they can work.
For Jacob Fleming, who has been with Hope Restorations for the last six months, the opportunity has been an enlightening one. Fleming was told about Hope Restorations by his parole officer the week after he got out of prison, and was excited to have a job.
“That was my number one most important task to accomplish. Get a job, two if possible, come home and stay out of trouble,” he said.
While working with Hope Restorations Fleming said he has discovered that he enjoys working on electrical systems, and wants to become a certified electrician.
“It means a lot to me. When you in a certain situation, it feels like everyone is against you, but it seems like this company just sees the good or the potential in you.”