About 1,500 young adults with mental health or addiction issues are slated to get support rejoining society when they leave county jails, after Orange County supervisors agreed to more than double investments in a local re-entry program.
For the last few years, the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Project Kinship has been providing such services under a county contract that has a maximum amount of a little over $2 million per year.
This week, county supervisors boosted that support to up to $5 million per year – and expanded it to the Theo Lacy jail in Orange. The new contract starts next month and runs until summer 2025.
Under the contract, Project Kinship employs peer navigators – many of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves – to connect with people as they leave jail and offer them a phone charge, clean clothes, transportation, temporary shelter and program assessments.
From there, the program offers support for mental health and drug treatment services, housing, job skills training and peer support groups.
A study commissioned by the county found Project Kinship significantly reduced the likelihood that people would later become incarcerated again, known as recidivism.
“It is a good item for us to support as we try to help those who have served their time and are trying to stabilize and move on to being good citizens,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley.
“As people leave [jail], they do have needs, they do have unmet circumstances that they’re not expecting,” added Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento.
“So I’m hoping that this is going to fill that gap.”
Supervisor Doug Chaffee said the program would be cost effective over time, with people returning to jail less often.
Sarmiento also said the county should look at changing its practice of releasing people from jail around midnight or later – a time when public transportation isn’t running and nearly everything is closed.
Raymond Sanchez, who coordinates the peer navigator services at Project Kinship, said he first encountered the program when he was released from being incarcerated in 2014 and is now about to finish his bachelor’s degree.
In an interview, Sanchez said the navigators can relate to what people are going through as they walk down the steps when they’re released.
Lots of questions go through people’s heads as they’re released, he said.
“Do I have somewhere to stay?”
“Am I gonna be received by my family?”
The navigator team is there to help people figure out their next steps, Sanchez said, like if they need to get home safe or want a “warm hand-off” to a rehabilitation program.
“We offer a support group, and a way to stay connected to them, and walk through the process of change,” Sanchez said.
Madeline Rodriguez, who directs programs at Project Kinship, said people are offered a safe place to open up and help overcome their struggles.
“We welcome individuals to create a space where people feel comfortable to be vulnerable, talk about their deepest pains and secrets, so healing can happen,” she said.
One of the key goals, she said, is to help people overcome childhood trauma and “understand that they are worthy, they are capable.”
“Consistency and connection” are key, she said, including meeting with people before their release dates and ensuring they see the same faces when they get out.
“As soon as an individual agrees to connect with us, we stay with them as long as we can” to help them get into programs, she said.
People who go through the program have opportunities to get certified in community intervention through Chapman University and get employed as peer navigators in the program.
And half of the group’s staff have experience being incarcerated.
“That’s our special sauce,” said Steve Kim, who co-founded Project Kinship and is its executive director.
“We’re trying to heal the cycle of incarceration,” he said. “It really is about hope, connection and people feeling loved,” Kim continued.
He said he’s seen the positive impacts on people’s lives.
“I haven’t met a formerly incarcerated person or gang member who hasn’t been transformed after encountering love and community,” he added.
“I think we have about 1,000 years of incarceration among our staff. And we’re trying to get to 1,000 years of hope.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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