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Life After Prison: ‘You’ve Got to Crawl Before You Walk’

March 14, 2016 08:52:03 am

Lorenzo Brooks outside the subway stop in his neighborhood. (Photo by Alice Popovici)

When Lorenzo Brooks arrived for his first shift at a homeless shelter in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, in late December, he tried swiping his ID card three times before he managed to clock in with the help of a coworker.

He was beginning his first full-time job after 30 years in prison.

“I wasn’t used to swiping a card,” recalls Lorenzo, 60, who now works as a program aide in charge of security at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter on West 168th Street.

“It was very foreign to me, very foreign.”

Lorenzo had been an accountant for the New York City Housing Authority before he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1986. Since his release from prison last September, he has found a place to live, reconnected with family and started a full-time job at the homeless shelter.

He has agreed to let The Crime Report document his journey as he settles into the routine of his new life.  

In PART 1 of our series, Lorenzo meets with a job coach at the Center for Employment Opportunities and practices answering questions during a mock interview. The organization eventually helped him land his job at a homeless shelter run by the nonprofit Project Renewal.

Things are working out so far, but it didn’t happen by accident, Lorenzo says.

Even before the parole board granted his release—during the 6th parole board hearing of his incarceration—he knew what he wanted to do.

“I made preparations and I set goals,” he says. “I just educated myself on the resources available.”

When Lorenzo was released from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York on September 22, he went straight to Bellevue Men’s Shelter in Manhattan, and then to McGuiness Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn, NY.

The next day, he began to rebuild his life. He went to the Human Services Administration, where he filled out applications for food stamps, Medicaid and immediate cash assistance. Next, he filled out an application to live at the Fortune Society in Harlem, an organization that provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated men and women, and was admitted about three weeks later.

It’s a bureaucratic gauntlet that most individuals released from prison must run as they begin the process of re-integrating into the society they left behind.  Every year, about 636,000 men and women go through the same path—and for many, it’s a forbidding gateway to a “normal” world that they haven’t experienced for years, in some cases decades.

Many are also woefully unprepared—As Lorenzo notes.  

“Some people don’t prepare themselves while they’re in (prison),” Lorenzo says. “They think someone else is going to do it for them.” 

The shelter where Lorenzo works the midnight to 8 a.m. shift Friday through Tuesday is one of several homeless shelters run by the nonprofit Project Renewal. It serves about 200 men who struggle with drug addiction and mental health issues.

Every shift, Lorenzo, dressed in black and white—that’s the uniform shelter staff must wear—and an orange reflective vest, makes his rounds through the dorms, carrying a radio to communicate with other staff members. He patrols the sidewalk outside the shelter to make sure no one is loitering or panhandling.

Lorenzo found his new duties ironic.

“[It] did feel like a reversal of roles,” he said. “Now I’m the one responsible for their safety and security.”

Lorenzo earns about $9.80 an  hour as a program aide—earnings he uses to pay his $215 monthly rent at the Fortune Society and to buy food and incidentals. It’s only slightly above minimum wage, but a significant improvement over the $0.17 hourly wage he was earning in prison.

As he builds up his savings, he hopes to one day move out on his own.

But for now he is happy to take things one day at a time.

He would like to advance, at Project Renewal, to a position as counselor for clients with substance abuse problems—a job that would require about four months of specialized training.

“Right now, my position is one of being at the bottom of the ladder,” he says, “You’ve always got to crawl before you walk.”

Because of his time behind bars, Lorenzo can empathize with the men at the shelter—some recently released from prison themselves—and tries to help as much as possible.

“Being in their position, you can feel hopeless and helpless,” he said, “so I try to let them know that they’re not helpless and that there is hope.”

If the men don’t want to eat the food at the shelter—which is often the standard cafeteria fare of potatoes, rice and beef cubes—Lorenzo directs them to other nearby options like food trucks or the 24-hour McDonald’s a few blocks away.

If someone wants to smoke,  Lorenzo shows them the designated outdoor smoking area. If they feel  alone, he reminds them there is always someone who will listen.

“You’ve got someone,” he tells them. “I don’t care if it ain’t nobody but your case manager.”

We’ll be carrying periodic reports about Lorenzo’s journey over the next several months.  Next up, we’ll take a look at how Lorenzo has settled into his new community at Fortune Society. Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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