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When Joel Torres found himself in jail again, he ran out of excuses to continue on the same path. When he wasn’t serving time for his crimes, he was on the street without a job or a place to live.
“This isn’t who I am, who I am reflecting outside to everyone else,” Torres said. “On paper I just look like a criminal and inside I knew I really want to help people and help myself.”
After serving his most recent jail sentence, Torres made a change. He accepted the help he was being offered by Haven for Hope to start anew. Torres agreed to be admitted into Haven’s Jail Outreach Program.
A small group of current and veteran participants, as well as those who work behind the scenes, gathered Tuesday at the homelessness resource center and shelter to celebrate the outreach program’s one year anniversary.
The program helps homeless individuals get back on their feet when they are released from the Bexar County Jail. The program provides free aid and therapy to those inmates with physical or mental health issues including addiction. Its staff works to find jobs and housing for its clients, in the meantime providing food and a place to stay in the Haven for Hope’s large facility in the near Westside.
“The year has been successful,” said Steven Aidala, Jail Outreach peer support lead. In the past six months about 25 people have successfully left the program and are living independently while another 10 are living with family members.
The aim of the program is just that: to give homeless individuals with criminal backgrounds a chance to reintegrate into society, a process that is often difficult to achieve alone, especially for someone with a mental illness or addiction.
Torres received several forms of support through the program including counseling and new clothes for job interviews.
“They had every tool in the shed for me,” he said.
He now lives in his own apartment and has a full-time job.
It is cases like Torres’ that make all of the work worth it, said Family Violence Court Judge Crystal Chandler, who plays a hand in the selection of inmates who are admitted to the program.
“This is an ideal situation. You want to see people who are taking advantage of opportunities that are out there for them and turning their lives around, that’s how you want the system to work,” Chandler said.
But not every inmate is initially eligible to join the program, she added. They first need to be eligible for a personal recognizance bond, or PR bond, which is granted after the review of an inmate’s case and criminal history is completed. If, after review, they are ineligible for the bond, then they may have the opportunity for a Haven for Hope case worker to speak to the judge on their behalf to allow them to enter the program.
“(A case worker) with pretrial services will go to the jail and interview them … and they’ll put together a report for me to read and can educate me and say ‘Judge, I think this person would be a great candidate for this program,’” Chandler said.
Michael Cardona, a current program participant, was hopeless at the end of his jail term, he said. He wanted the judge presiding over his case to let him stay in jail since he had nowhere else to go. After hearing about the outreach program, he decided to give it a try.
“I came to Haven and was just totally happy with all the help I’ve received since I’ve been here,” Cardona said, who started the program in July 2015. “There’s a bunch of different programs here that I’ve utilized.”
Since opening in April 2010, Haven for Hope has provided care and guidance for more than 2,500 homeless people in Bexar County. The Jail Outreach Program is just one of many programs offered there that works to positively affect and change the lives of the City’s homeless.
Bexar County Director for Judicial Services Mike Lozito said the program is a step toward putting an end to a never ending cycle of jail time.
“We looked at the homeless situation downtown,” he said. “A lot of these people serve time and get out but don’t have any services to help them. We thought about what we needed to do because some of these people have up to six arrests a year, and sometimes it’s just for sleeping in front of a building.”
Since the program started, Lozito said, 70% of participants remain in the program.
Haven is hoping to fine tune the program in its next year and keep in touch with its “graduates.”
“We hope to keep a good level of communication and stay involved with folks in whatever way we can,” Aidala said.
Though he has graduated from the Jail Outreach Program, Torres said he’s proud to share his story with others and to be part of the Haven for Hope community as an alumni.
“This isn’t a homeless shelter,” he said. “It’s a program, it’s an opportunity.”
*Top image: The mural outside Haven for Hope. Photo by Camille Garcia.