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Lend a helping hand to former offenders

When people are released from prison, they are given $40 and a bus ticket. Free at last, they think. They leave prison with the hope that they can begin a new life, and stay out of trouble. But when they return home, life outside the walls becomes very difficult.

Priscilla, a pseudonym, knew that life would never be the same again. But she never imagined all the heartache that awaited her. She came into my office at Catholic Charities trying very hard to hold back the tears.

Priscilla was staying in a homeless shelter. When she returned to the house that she had called home, her extended family members wanted nothing to do with her. Her parents had died while she was in prison, and her boyfriend had been killed in a drive-by shooting on the streets of Buffalo. If it had not been for a Crisis Services worker who was kind to her and took her to the shelter, she might have "done herself in."

When she went to apply for employment and wrote on the application that she had been convicted of a felony, no one would hire Priscilla. She couldn't apply for subsidized housing for the same reason.

Priscilla had used the $40 for a coat and other needed clothing that she bought in a thrift store, before she knew I could write her a referral for a voucher that would cover the cost of these things.

There was a waiting list at the halfway house for ex-offenders and she had no money for rent, so she went to the homeless shelter. But she was told that she could stay there only temporarily, until she was able to find an apartment.

I referred her to the Department of Social Services emergency assistance window to apply for public assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. Although she did get emergency food stamps, there is a 45-day waiting period for the other benefits.

I also referred her to Belmont Housing for a list of apartments. A kind landlady I know was willing to rent her a small cottage in the rear of her house and agreed to wait 45 days for the rent. This was an answer to prayer, because other landlords had rejected her.

I went to a fast-food restaurant in the inner city and acted as an advocate for Priscilla, who was hired on probation. She is doing very well now, enjoys her job and is staying out of trouble.

Priscilla comes for supportive counseling regularly. Her depression and anxiety are relieved. In the last counseling session she said, "Sister Ann, thanks to you, Catholic Charities and Crisis Services, I have found hope again and I am very grateful."

Priscilla is attending church again and now sings in the choir and can truly relate to the words of the song, "God Will Make A Way."

She said she would like to work with me to form a support group for ex-offenders. I told her that was a great idea and something to consider.

So I am left with this thought. There is a great need in our society today to assist parole and probation workers; to continue to help to welcome ex-offenders; and to help them to readjust in the community so they can become contributing citizens and enjoy a good quality of life.

Jesus once said, "I was released from prison and you befriended me." And then I asked, "When Lord did I do this?" And he replied, "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, that you did unto me. Now enter into the home of my father."

Someday may we hear these words for being kind to former offenders.

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