Less than two weeks after his prison release through the Second Look Amendment Act, Jamal Childs experienced the perils of life on the outside. Without the close familial bonds he enjoyed as a free man in his early 20s, Childs struggled to secure stable and affordable housing.
Not even District-funded hotel accommodations proved sufficient, as Childs often grew anxious about the possibility of getting kicked out suddenly.
For nights at a time, Childs, now 47, slept on an air mattress with a hole in it. By the end of the night, after air escaped out of the air mattress, Childs found himself on the floor.
On Monday morning, after completing his morning prayer, Childs braved below-freezing temperatures to tell his story and demand that D.C. government officials better support returning citizens with adequate housing and employment opportunities.
Childs counted among several returning citizens, advocates and public officials who took to the podium in front of the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest during the Emergency Rally for Returning Citizens.
“We got to educate people and have a mentality that they will hear us,” Childs said.
“These kids are lost and are in survival mode. I’m trying to repair the damage so give me something solid,” he added.
“We’re not looking for a messiah. We want to make it better. Give us something to stand on and watch us shake something up.”
The Overall Focus on Mental Health
Other speakers on Monday included Roach Brown of Inner Voices along with The Rev. Willie Wilson, The Rev. Graylan Hagler, Tony Lewis Jr., Al-Malik Farrakhan of Cease Fire, Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, and D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At-large).
Brown organized this event in collaboration with former Alliance of Concerned Men director Tyrone Parker and Kevin Petty, founder of Philemon Mission Transitional Facility in Southeast. They coordinated the rally to bring attention to what they described as the long-term health drawbacks of housing insecurity and joblessness on returning citizens.
Brown, in particular, mentioned how housing insecurity has not only exacerbated a mental health crisis in the District, but New York City and other major U.S. cities.
In her comments, Dr. Carmen Johnson, a returning citizen and founder of re-entry program Helping Ourselves to Transform, delved into her experiences as a female inmate who experienced incarceration and prison guard abuse for three years.
She too repeatedly explained the importance of mental health, and implored listeners to understand returning citizens’ plight.
Other returning citizens expressed gratitude for the advances the District has made for returning citizens and incarcerated residents — including reinstatement of voting rights and the creation of the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs.
However, they said more must be done to dismantle a remnant of chattel slavery that primarily discriminates against native-born Black Washingtonians.
Amid Vast Development, Housing Insecurity Persists
Miles away from the Wilson Building, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and other District officials celebrated the opening of The Rise at Temple Courts.
The reconstructed affordable housing at Golden Rule and Temple Courts developments in Northwest now includes more than 100 affordable units. It counts as phase one of the Northwest One community at 2 L Street NW, which transpired out of the New Communities Initiative started by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams.
In the 17 years since Williams launched the New Communities Initiative in 2005, countless Washingtonians have experienced displacement amid significant cost-of-living increases.
As explained by several speakers at the emergency rally, returning citizens transitioning to life in the nation’s capital often struggle to navigate a society vastly different from what they left behind. Despite the influx of newly constructed housing in the District, returning citizens, and other low-income residents, often fall short in acquiring permanent, affordable accommodations.
The decades-long phenomenon inspired some people like Petty to take matters into their own hands.
Petty, a returning citizen, launched the Philemon Mission Transitional Facility in Southeast to provide temporary housing to men leaving the prison system.
On Monday, Petty said the Philemon Mission has been able to operate without government support. However, he called on the D.C. government to fulfill its obligation to residents via 3,000 housing units for returning citizens and other poor and underserved District residents.
Petty went a step further in proposing that those units eventually get converted into condominiums, not by developers, but by District residents possessing those skillsets.
“Our returning citizens are coming out of the prison system and have to come home to a poor and underserved family that’s being crushed,” Petty said.
“There is housing insecurity,” he continued.
“We are pulling people out of poverty. We don’t need your developers. We will build and manage this housing. We will take care of our people ourselves.”
A Woman’s Plea for Grace and Understanding
Johnson, who also conducts court watch programs in Maryland, called on women and families to be more supportive of these efforts. She didn’t mince words as she expressed her gripes against the court system she said unjustly incarcerated her.
“It’s not cool for us to be enslaved and come home with nothing. It’s disgusting,” Johnson said.
“I couldn’t even get my housing because I was considered a felon. Thank God I had my family and community supporting me,” she continued.
“There should be more of us standing out here fighting against this disgusting system. Mental health is real. I know what it’s like to be beaten down by racist white guards.”