ELKHART — An Elkhart County organization which helps ex-convicts reintegrate into society after incarceration will have to shut down if it doesn’t receive needed funding to continue its programs.
It’s Possible Inc. needs $9,000 to continue providing job training and other services to former inmates in 2014, said founder and CEO Bill Anderson.
“I don’t think the community is aware that we’re here,” Anderson said.
Anderson started the organization in 2009 in Niles, Mich., and in 2010 became CEO of South Bend-based Companions for the Journey, which was later dissolved due to financial difficulties.
In 2011, Anderson moved It’s Possible to Elkhart.
“Then I met Sheriff (Brad) Rogers, who had started the re-entry initiative,” Anderson said.
Rogers thought It’s Possible would be a good fit within the Elkhart County Reentry Initiative to help serve Elkhart County’s former inmates.
“The initiative is intended to bring multiple levels of leadership and social services together to collaborate, network and reduce recidivism,” Rogers said. “One weak area we identified is getting felons employed.”
It’s Possible focuses on training and placing ex-offenders in Elkhart County jobs and supporting them to reduce recidivism.
Anderson understands how difficult it can be for a felon to find a job.
As a 19-year-old college freshman at the University of Cincinnati, Anderson was arrested while shoplifting a block of cheese from a grocery store.
He was charged with armed robbery, a felony, even though he was unarmed and the crime was better suited to a shoplifting charge, he said.
He was young, scared and unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and pleaded “no contest” to the charge. He was sentenced to an educational release program which allowed him to attend his college classes.
“I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to continue my education,” Anderson said.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management and a master’s degree in social work.
The plea has prevented him from expunging the record, so Anderson is still branded as a felon.
“I carry around (the arresting officer’s) deposition so I can explain it,” he said. “People laugh but I’m considered a felon.”
His status as a felon prevented him from getting jobs for which he was otherwise qualified.
“I do believe wrong was done to me and I remember every person from the day it happened,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s mission now is to provide other felons with a support system to help them find jobs and prevent them from re-offending.
His experience with the criminal justice system and struggles with his own criminal status help him connect with his clients in a way many other groups cannot, he said.
“These are real people with real stories,” Anderson said. “You have to deal with those stories and you can’t be afraid of them. If you’re afraid of the people you’re doing it for, you won’t get too far.”
Elkhart Possible has helped 70 clients through a range of services from job training to filling out paperwork for government benefits, Anderson said. New client intake has been closed until additional funds are available.
The organization received at $10,000 grant from the Elkhart County Community Foundation last year, which funded an employment training program for 15 students.
Elkhart Possible has also received small donations from private donors, usually in amounts ranging from $20 to $200, but these are not enough to run the program.
Anderson has sent 200 letters to local churches, banks and other organizations seeking financial help, but has only received two responses. One was a $1,000 check from a private donor an another was $300 from a group in Texas. These donations will keep It’s Possible running into the new year and Anderson intends to continue helping Elkhart County’s underserved formerly incarcerated population until the money runs out.
He runs It’s Possible from a small office space in a storage room in the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department where the Elkhart County Jail is visible from his office window. This proximity to the jail, as well as the distance from the city of Elkhart where most of his clients live, makes it difficult for him to connect with clients.
Anderson said he usually meets clients in neutral areas such as coffee shops or McDonald’s.
He was offered an office space on Benham Avenue but does not think he can afford it when he’s still searching for funds to keep the program running.
In addition to job training, Anderson works to place clients in jobs at local businesses.
Many business owners are hesitant to hire felons, but Anderson provides a place of accountability and helps mediate any problems employers have.
Anderson said most of his clients are employed in factories or stocking Elkhart County stores.
Elkhart Possible also helps provide clients with transportation to their jobs. Program funds have been used to purchase mopeds and bicycles for clients and Anderson gives clients his personal cell phone number and uses his own car to pick them up when they need help getting to work.
Collin Edwards has been working with Anderson to navigate the sea of paperwork associated with getting his disability, Medicare and veteran’s benefits.
“I have problems filling out forms,” he said. “I just don’t know how to word things.”
Edwards has been out of jail for about two years. He served three years and 10 months at Westville Correctional Facility on an aggravated battery charge arising from what he described as “a self-defense situation.”
He lived with his parents for a while after his release, but had to leave after they had some disagreements.
He moved into an overpriced apartment because he was unable to find another landlord willing to rent to a felon, and shortly after that someone emptied his bank account. He could not find job.
“I was homeless on and off,” Edwards said. “I slept under bridges and on park benches, then I got smart and started to sleep in the bushes. If you stay out of sight you have less problems. You learn to hide because no one really wants you.”
Edwards went through the phone book calling apartment complexes looking for a place to live.
“The overwhelming majority turned me down because I was a felon,” he said. “If you’re a felon, you’re not going to get into the complexes in the phone book.”
One landlord asked Edwards to produce a letter from his therapist stating that he was not a threat to others.
Even the Elkhart Housing Authority was unable to find him a place to live.
Now he has an apartment and is getting back on his feet with the help of Elkhart Possible, he said.
Since he started working with Anderson in October, Edwards has been able to get his veteran, disability and Medicaid benefits as well as food stamps. The next step, Anderson said, is finding Edwards a job.
Edwards and Anderson said providing support to felons is the best way to keep them from reoffending.
“If we’re going to let them out, we have a responsibility to provide them with services to keep the community safe and keep crime down,” Anderson said. “If they’re in a productive place they’re less likely to commit a crime. Some will mess up, but we need to give them the opportunity to do better.”
To learn more about It’s Possible, visit www.elkhartpossible.org.