Jeff Abramowitz, executive director of Reentry Services at JEVS Human Services, outside the Looking Forward Philadelphia program office on Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
In Philadelphia, an average of 25,000 people return from jails and prisons each year. A staggering 91 percent of those are released to neighborhoods in poverty. For these returning citizens, finding a way out of poverty after reentry can seem almost impossible.
“Reentry”— the term for the process of returning to society after incarceration — can be a challenging transition. In fact, many feel that though they have “returned,” they are still trying to “reenter.”
The barriers to reentry are numerous and after spending time away, can feel insurmountable. “Before we even get to the question of employment, there’s the issue of obtaining an ID, transportation, even clothing” says Jeff Abramowitz, executive director of reentry services at JEVS Human Services. “Looking Forward provides all of those support services, and more.”
Looking Forward Philadelphia is a program of JEVS Human Services that provides support services and employment assistance to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of citizens returning from incarceration. It was launched in March of 2019 in partnership with Temple University and funded by the Lenfest Foundation.
“We define success as obtaining a career with a sustainable wage, longevity and retention.”
“We meet people where they are and provide whatever support services they need to find success, whether they are just returning or facing a barrier due to a criminal background from years ago” says Jeff. “We define success as obtaining a career with a sustainable wage, longevity and retention.”
Addressing Immediate Needs for Future Success
“Transportation is huge. We offer SEPTA passes for job interviews, we partner with Our Closet for clothes, and we provide soft skills training to help returning citizens interview and then keep a job once they’re hired. If necessary, we’ll support them in court or work with their parole officer or halfway house. We give them the tools to chip away at the barriers that stand in front of them.”
The program, not yet a year old, is already seeing great success. “To date we have touched over 1,000 lives. We see between 20-30 people per week in our orientation and workshops, some are just coming home from confinement and others have been home for months or years – we recently helped someone who had been home for 25 years and was still struggling.”
Clients learn about the program through partners – halfway houses, recovery centers, homeless shelters, courts, parole officers. A big referral source is word of mouth. “Word spreads quickly on the street, so we have to be credible. We must deliver. And we do.”
Program participants receive a comprehensive needs assessment and individualized next-steps plan, including one-on-one case management by a trained resource coordinator, job search and placement help with the aid of on-site job developers, and referrals to services at 40+ community partners that provide housing, health care, legal services and more.
Getting Started on a Career path
“Giving someone a second chance at life is not just about helping people find a job. In fact,” says Jeff, “we refuse to place anyone in a job that does not provide a sustainable living wage and a career pathway. We know from experience that if an individual is not happy at what they do, they won’t stay there. We want to put them on a career path that sets them up for success in life.”
So far, hundreds have been placed with employers, and Jeff reports that 85 percent have 90-day plus retention. “We will track them for 2 years, but we’re here for life if they need us.”