Heather Fitzsimmons was working on getting her life back together and staying clean while on probation in Aurora when she noticed what seemed to be an extra deposit in the account where she gets paid.
Fitzsimmons called to alert her employers at the Center for Employment Opportunities in Denver, part of a national organization providing immediate employment for formerly incarcerated people. They explained the nonprofit’s new pilot program — a first-of-its-kind cash assistance initiative giving $24 million to more than 10,000 former inmates across the country.
“It helped me get in a better mental spot to where I feel like it’s actually possible to stay off the street and to maintain a job,” Fitzsimmons said. “It gave me the boost that I needed to get out.”
Fitzsimmons used the cash to pay part of a deposit on an apartment and get a car to drive to her job. Before that, she was homeless for six years and without a car for eight years. Now she works to help other people who are homeless and addicted to drugs or alcohol.
The cash assistance program delivered $1.5 million to 623 former inmates in and around Denver. More than 10,000 people in 28 cities received up to $2,750 nationwide. All funding from the program has already been distributed with the goal of helping formerly incarcerated people transition back to their communities.
The national stimulus program is privately funded by philanthropic interests including the Justice and Mobility Fund, Agnes Gund Foundation, Art For Justice Fund, George Kaiser Family Foundation and Robin Hood.
The Center for Employment Opportunities partners with the Second Chance Center reentry service in Aurora, where 246 people received cash through the stimulus funding, according to Khalil Halim, the executive director. The assistance will help ease socioeconomic pressures that contribute to crime, he said.
“With a program like this, it gives people some of that stability where they’re not stressed and they’re not anxious and they’re able to stabilize themselves,” Halim said. “And they’re not looking at committing crimes to stabilize themselves.”
People who received cash through the program have used the extra funds to pay for program fees at halfway houses, clothing, food, shelter and transportation. Some of Halim’s clients used the stimulus to start their own businesses.
Colorado lawmakers made efforts to support formerly incarcerated people this fall, starting a new reentry initiative to encourage hiring those recently released. The network will formally launch this summer with events to increase the number of fair chance employers, support them with training and connect them with employees.
The program is meant to complement broader policy changes in the justice system, said Pam Lachman, the organization’s senior director. “But just from what we’ve seen from the interim evaluation and from the stories we’ve heard, it had a huge kind of stabilizing impact on people.”
Lachman said organization leaders noticed the financial crisis for their employees as the pandemic hit, because participants in the program are paid daily. Being unable to work as many hours in-person made it more difficult to get on firm ground after jail or prison.
Carmen Ortega is another stimulus recipient who is now a full-time staffer running the work crew for the nonprofit’s location in Colorado Springs. She was homeless for four straight years and faced 32 years in prison before making a drastic change.
“Those four times that I came out of jail, I came out to nothing,” Ortega said. “I came out with nothing at all. Not even underwear, to be honest.”
After jail, Ortega didn’t have money for food, clothing or housing. She said getting involved with the organization and receiving funds was a new beginning. Last week was her third anniversary of being clean.
The stimulus money can provide a safety plan by getting people off the street and into a hotel room for the night, Ortega said. She said many people who are homeless in Colorado Springs come out of jail or prison with no money and have trouble securing necessities to rebuild their lives, from medication to a driver’s license.
“It will be a tremendous blessing,” Ortega said. “Because they will have something in hand, something to work with.”