COLORADO SPRINGS — A new program is helping formerly incarcerated people across the country.
National non-profit Center for Employment Opportunities created the Returning Citizen Stimulus Program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program distributed $24 million to 10,000 people returning from incarceration, including $1.5 million to 623 Coloradans.
Program participants were able to get up to $2,750 in stimulus funds to help with housing, transportation, food, and other necessities. With a decline in work opportunities due to the constraints of COVID-19, cash payment was thought of as another way to provide those immediate financial resources needed post-release.
If anyone knows the importance of being given a second chance, it's Colorado Springs resident Carmen Ortega.
"After my 40th birthday, I ended up using drugs for the first time in my life. I was divorced, my kids were out of the house, and I found myself with no purpose. I found myself being alone, bored, and depressed. Unfortunately, I fell into the world of drugs and it was a spiral," said Ortega.
She battled a methamphetamine addiction for six years, resulting in recurring trips to jail and drug clinics.
"My criminal behavior started, I lost the trust of my kids and the trust of the people who cared about me. I was devastated, and ended up being homeless on the streets of Colorado Springs for four years," said Ortega.
She felt her life was starting over again from scratch every time she returned from incarceration or rehab, with no resources or support system.
"I was in jail four times, my last time I was looking at 32 years of prison. During that time, like many of us, I didn't even have underwear. I didn't have anything, I didn't have the funds or the support that I needed at that moment. I ended up ended up going back to what I knew which were the people who had drugs. Unfortunately, I was using drugs the last time I was out of jail," said Ortega.
With the help of her therapist and parole officer, Ortega was able to get her life back on track. She connected with the Center for Employment Opportunities, and quickly got to work landing a job to help her become stable. Now, she is one of their recipients for the Returning Citizen Stimulus Program.
"The stimulus check was a blessing. I didn't know I was going to be able to receive such a blessing. When I received it, I was still working but only between ten and fifteen hours a week. It helped me to continue keeping my home which is so important for somebody in recovery," said Ortega. "People might think oh that money she probably used for drugs or go back to all of those things that people have in their minds that we're going to do, but my kids saw how much of a blessing it was to me to put that money aside."
According to the Center for Employment Opportunities, immediate access to federal relief funding was significantly harder for people coming home from incarceration, including those who had not filed a tax return for 2018 or 2019 (or filed for Social Security last year), or who may not have necessary documents, a bank account, internet access or a permanent address. Most individuals returning home from prison right now are also not eligible for unemployment insurance if they had not been working at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"People coming home did not have or had difficult access to support, and limited employment opportunities. We wanted to offer a solution that provided them with financial support," said Pamela Lachman, Senior Director at the Center for Employment Opportunities.
Lachman says the program has helped with people's financial stability, particularly the months after incarceration.
"Most of the people have reported that they've spent the money on food, rent and meeting basic needs. It's also helped them prepare for employment," said Lachman.
The organization is working on expanding the program to help even more people.
"We are excited about what we've learned and continue to learn from further evaluation. We want to see this part of reentry, the resources that people get when they return and help them be successful," said Lachman.
"If I hadn't been given this second chance, I don't know where I would be right now. I would probably be dead, or in prison for 32 years," said Ortega.
Ortega wants the community to know that recovery isn't easy, but it is not impossible. She is proof of that testament.