Every year, tens of thousands of people are released from jails and prisons, often with no money, no job prospects and no place to live.
In the 1980s, discussions began in Pinellas County about how to help ex-offenders fit back into society. What started as a networking group eventually grew into the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition, a nonprofit that brings together representative of business, government and social services. PERC now has six offices in Pinellas and Pasco counties, hosts an annual job fair, does free HIV testing, has its own housing facilities and offers a wide range of programs that have helped an estimated 10,000 ex-offenders and people at risk of incarceration.
In the not too distant future, PERC hopes to open a pharmacy in St. Petersburg that will house a needle exchange program in which used needles are exchanged for clean ones.
Executive director Michael Jalazo recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about PERC, including the challenges it has faced during the coronavirus pandemic when many of its programs had to temporarily go online. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With so many people who don’t have criminal records out of work, isn’t it hard to find jobs now for people who do?
It’s always a challenge to find jobs even in a great economy but it didn’t really impact us much at first. The reality is that getting people to work in supermarkets, Walmart and stuff like that, hasn’t been impossible but where typically we get people (in jobs) right away now it takes more time as the pandemic has gone on and on.
Also, we’re dealing with more issues. We’re finding higher rates of substance abuse, more people with mental health issues, rises in domestic violence and especially in Clearwater, we’re dealing with much more of a homeless population so it’s really a mix. We try to understand what clients’ issues are and then build them back up with resumes, interview skills or whatever.
Besides supermarkets and big-box stores, where are some other ex-offenders working?
One of our bigger providers (of jobs) is called Base Culture, it’s a bakery, very offender friendly. They got so busy we helped them create a third shift. We wound up being a big provider (of workers) to the DOT (Florida Department of Transportation) on the Gateway project. That was all road work. We had people who were working on the Pier, people working on the Sunshine Skyway with different contractors.
In addition to jobs, do ex-offenders, get any specialized training?
We’re trying to stack certifications in our training program so people are more marketable, things that don’t start at minimum wage. That FDOT (work) started at $15 an hour and goes up to $17, $18. We’re always looking for an upwardly mobile career path.
Can you give some examples?
We had people get a 325-hour certification in carpentry and basic construction skills. We get them OSHA- and power tool-certified — we stack a lot of certifications including forklift even. We had a half dozen guys go from us into manufacturing because they could operate forklifts. We got about a dozen people certified and licensed to fly drones. A couple have started their own businesses to do that and we’re trying to set up another class for that. We get pretty creative that way.
Do you turn anyone away?
As an agency we don’t exclude anyone. But when you get into special fields we have to really examine someone’s background. Someone with a lot of financial crimes is not going to be able to get a job in financial services. We look at (the client’s) background and understand state rules as pertains to the occupation.
When (Jeb) Bush was governor, we created a targeted job occupation list. It tries to take all different kinds of occupations and outlines if you have to have your rights restored to work in that and is there a review process or appeals process. We had two staff members who had significant backgrounds but went through the entire appeals process and they were allowed to work with very high risk kids in the criminal justice system. We felt like the best people to work with those kids were the ones who had been there and done that.
How about housing for ex-offenders?
Our housing program is two-fold. We own a couple of houses in south St. Pete that we use for transitional housing and we purchased the Continental Inn up in Clearwater about four years ago. At one point it was an apartment complex converted to a motel; we converted it back. We have a bunch of one-bedroom apartments. We do some permanent, some transitional.
Any other housing in the works?
When we started our tiny house program, we were going to build 80 tiny houses on trailers and sell them. Then there were people with the city of St. Pete and Pinellas that looped us into building tiny houses as part of affordable housing so we made that pivot and now we’re sort of stuck because the lots they promised to give us, they never gave us. We are in the midst of building a house behind the Welch plaza. Our goal is to build more houses and have part of them as workforce housing and housing for homeless vets. (PERC owns the property and six storefronts of the David T. Welch Center for Progress and Community Development on 16th Street S in St. Petersburg, named after a former city council member.)
What is the status of your proposed needle exchange program?
Every community that has done this has seen more people get into treatment. It’s a public safety thing but also a public health thing. The Legislature (legalized exchanges) a year and a half ago but it required a local ordinance that we started working on in the fall of 2019 but obviously in the first quarter of 2020 the whole world changed. We hope to open the first one in Welch plaza. Independent pharmacies are actually pretty lucrative, and if we can be profitable it will support other programs.
Where does PERC get its funding?
We certainly have grants and contracts but about 35 percent of our revenues are not related to any grant. All of the classes we offer are client paid but we offer them a lot cheaper than other providers. We own the Welch plaza and we always focus on (leasing the storefronts) to other nonprofits or other organizations doing stuff in the community.
What is the recidivism rate among ex-offenders who are PERC clients as compared to others who have been released from incarceration?
For people who participate in the program and are engaged in what we are doing, it’s 15 to 18 percent. For people we see once or twice, the rates are much higher.
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