[Source: “What it’s like to get out of prison and have no home,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, 22 September 2016, by Stephen Gruber-Miller]
When Letisha Molina went looking for a new apartment, she was rejected 12 times.
She had bad credit, she says, but there was another issue tripping up potential landlords: her criminal past.
Molina has been to prison twice for using and selling drugs in Arizona. She used to use crack cocaine, but Oct. 11 will mark five years of sobriety. Two years ago, she moved to Iowa City looking for a fresh start.
Mike Cervantes, director of the Iowa City-based Inside Out Reentry Program, which works with Molina, said finding a place to live is often the biggest hurdle for people who were formerly incarcerated.
“In Iowa City it’s so difficult to get an apartment that if you’ve got anything in your background you have to do a little bit more to get the landlord to consider you,” Cervantes said.
It wasn’t until Inside Out encouraged Molina to write a cover letter to her potential landlords explaining how she’s turned her life around that she was able to secure her current residence: a two-bedroom apartment on Broadway Street.
She’s hoping to regain custody of two of her children, ages 12 and 13, who still live in Arizona. This weekend, for the first time in two years, Molina will fly back to Arizona to visit her kids and appear before a judge to make her case.
Part of that case relies on her having enough space for the kids, Molina said. That’s why the smaller one-bedroom apartment she previously lived in wasn’t cutting it.
In fact, when Molina moved to Iowa, leaving behind an abusive boyfriend who had her selling drugs, even her family thought she was abandoning her responsibilities. Since then, they’ve learned better.
“A lot of my family really thought I came down here to get away so I could get high, but when they see what the Inside Out program has done for me — and I stuck by this program, I kept going to church, I got involved in my church — they were very proud of me,” Molina said.
‘There’s certainly a stigma’
Finding housing after a prison sentence isn’t only challenging, it’s expensive, said Mark Sertterh, associate executive director at Shelter House in Iowa City.
Sertterh said Shelter House often helps people who are homeless and have a criminal past find housing, and there have been times when they have gone through five or 10 rental applications before they can find a landlord willing to take a chance. With fees running around $20 to $35 per application, the costs add up.
Iowa City’s work toward more affordable housing will help, said Heidi Cuda, regional director of Prelude Behavioral Services, which offers services to people who struggle with substance abuse in Iowa, Washington, Cedar and Johnson counties.
But the stigma is still there, especially if someone has a substance abuse problem in their past, she said.
“It’s hard to find housing because you have a criminal record. So there’s certainly a stigma. People just kind of don’t want to deal with them,” Cuda said.
‘Oh, this guy’s got a criminal record’
Finding a job can be another challenge for people leaving prison, but Caleb Wierman said he found it was best to be open and honest with employers about his past.
When Wierman was 18 he moved to Iowa from Florida, but he grew restless and wanted to go back home. He stole cash and a truck to try to make the trip, but he was caught by authorities. After running away from his halfway house, Wierman was sent to jail for about 10 years. He was released from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville in July.
But all that’s behind him now, he said.
“It’s one thing to look online and see, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a criminal record,’ but it’s a completely different story when the guy actually sits down and you tell him exactly what happened and why it happened and what you did,” Wierman said. “Then they get to know you a little bit more instead of just looking at a sheet of paper that’s got a lengthy criminal record.”
After an interview at Neumiller Electric, Wierman said was offered a job on the spot. And although he was laid off about two weeks ago after a knee injury, he said his boss told him he’ll be rehired when he’s healthy. In the meantime, Wierman got another job at Family Dollar in Maquoketa, where he just moved with his girlfriend.
Still, some employers won’t budge. Finding a job is especially hard for people who have multiple drug convictions or have served prison time, Cuda said.
“The folks that have the biggest challenges are the ones who have felony convictions on their record. It makes it really difficult to get a job,” she said.
That was the case for Miranda Lalla, an Iowa City resident convicted of vehicular manslaughter two years ago for a 2012 incident where she ran over a woman with her pickup truck while intoxicated.
Lalla has now been sober for more than four years and attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. When she got out of prison in January, she stayed in transitional housing offered by Prelude until she could find a job and place to live, but employer after employer ignored her applications or turned her down when they learned of her charge.
“I only had one place that called me back for the interview, and that’s when she told me that she couldn’t hire me. But other than that nobody called me back,” Lalla said.
Transportation takes a shift in mindset
Eventually, Lalla was able to get a job at the Hampton Inn in Iowa City.
She bikes to work because she’s barred from driving for six years as a result of her conviction. While Lalla said she doesn’t mind biking, she said she would eventually like to get a driver’s license.
Transportation is a common problem for people coming out of prison, Cervantes said.
“Until I started working (at Inside Out) I didn’t realize how many people didn’t have a driver’s license. There’s a fair number of people who don’t, and that limits them in terms of the type of work they can do as well, besides getting to work,” he said.
In the winter, Lalla will either have to catch a ride with one of her coworkers or wake up earlier before her 5:30 a.m. shift and walk the 45 minutes from her apartment to the hotel. No buses run along the route.
Molina’s job at Goodwill is close enough that she can bike or walk to work. She doesn’t have a driver’s license either but said she wants to get one once she’s paid off a fine for driving without a license.
‘My family went through so much’
Another common thread shared by many re-entering society after a prison sentence is the toll it takes on family life.
“My family is really old school. I went to prison. I did it to myself, so I’m on my own,” Wierman said of his time behind bars. “When I got out, they’ve been there for me.”
The trip from Maquoketa to Dubuque, where his mother lives, is about 30 minutes, and he sees her almost every weekend. And, he said, his girlfriend has been very supportive.
“She knows everything about me. She’s not judgmental at all. She’s very understanding and she knows I’m trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Lalla has a 21-year-old son who still lives in the Iowa City area, but because of her drug use she hasn’t seen him in over 15 years.
“That was on me because I kept choosing the drugs over him,” she said. While her son has said he’s not ready to see her yet, Lalla still sends him letters every month letting him know how she’s doing.
She said she knows she caused her family to suffer during her multiple run-ins with the criminal justice system over the years. At the time, she didn’t believe she could do anything different.
“I understand all of my family went through so much with me because I had chances after chances of probation,” Lalla said. “I was in drug court and I still would fall. There were different things that were in the factor of it, but it didn’t matter. I still did not believe in myself.”
Now she does.