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Bay Area inmates build furniture for people coming out of homelessness
San Jose Mercury News - 4/5/2022
After seven years of homelessness and an arrest that landed him behind bars, 50-year-old Raymond Abels never dreamed he’d be in a position to help others struggling to overcome life on the streets.
As part of a new 15-inmate vocational training program at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Abels volunteers several days a week putting together furniture for people in need. The finished pieces – desks, dressers, nightstands and more – are distributed by the Bay Area Furniture Bank to people and families transitioning out of homelessness.
To Abels, who is awaiting sentencing on a conviction for stealing cars, the chance to take this small step toward giving back and turning his life around is a “small miracle.” He gets emotional when he talks about it.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s definitely something I needed.”
Santa Rita Jail started the program six months ago as a way to break the cycle of incarceration for the people who come right back to jail, sometimes just months after being released, said Joe Vu, one of two sheriff’s deputies who spearhead the program. The idea is that volunteering to help the community helps inmates’ mental health, work ethic and desire to improve their lives. Participants currently build furniture, wash cars owned by county workers, and do maintenance and groundskeeping at the jail, but the deputies hope to expand to include more volunteer jobs. The program can accommodate just 15 people now — all of whom volunteer for the opportunity — but Deputy Lance Thomas estimates there are 100 inmates interested in participating.
Once inmates are released, Thomas and Vu continue working with them, helping them navigate finances, job hunts and other difficult aspects of the re-entry into society – all with the goal of reducing recidivism.
“Now when they’re released, they’re not going to just be ‘see you later, see you in six months,'” Vu said.
The training program begins as the jail reels from several challenges. Earlier this year, a federal judge approved a settlement that will force Santa Rita to improve its mental health care under court oversight. A recent lawsuit accuses jail staff of failing to properly supervise inmate Jonas Park’s withdrawal from opioids, resulting in his suicide. It was the second lawsuit filed in a month over concerns about the health and safety of inmates at Santa Rita.
The partnership with Santa Rita Jail also comes at a key time for the Bay Area Furniture Bank, a South Bay nonprofit founded in 2016 by Ray Piontek. Prior to the pandemic, Piontek relied on people donating furniture – especially hotels that offered up entire floors’ worth of items when they remodeled. When he needed to fill in the gaps in donations, Piontek would buy items in bulk from Wayfair or Ikea, and have volunteers from local schools and other organizations assemble them.
But when COVID hit, hotels shut down and canceled renovation projects, resulting in a huge drop in donations.
“We had to buy furniture like a son of a gun,” Piontek said.
And the group had fewer people to help assemble that furniture, as fears of the virus made volunteers reluctant to venture out.
The furniture bank serves an average of 74 households per month, making sure they have essential furniture when they’re moved off the street or out of a shelter and into their own homes. During the first six months of the pandemic, demand for furniture more than doubled as officials rushed to get people off the streets, out of crowded shelters and into housing.
“We come in and there’s their clothing in a garbage bag and that’s all they have to store their clothing,” Piontek said. “How many times have we seen people just sleeping on the floor? If you’re going to sit somewhere, you’re sitting on a box.”
For 34-year-old James Chantler, the furniture bank’s help was “huge.” Chantler, a Navy veteran, was living in a homeless shelter until he found a low-income apartment in San Jose last month. The furniture bank gave him a desk, microwave, dresser, lamps, cleaning supplies, pots and pans, sheets and more.
“Getting this is a big relief,” he said. “Money’s been really tight, so not having to divvy out what little resources I have on those sorts of things … I’m just really grateful for everything that I’ve been offered here.”
Chantler, who lives off $150 a month in government benefits, is hoping to find part-time work and go back to school to become a park ranger.
On a recent morning, Abels and several other men put together nightstands in an outdoor courtyard at Santa Rita, while shots from deputies’ target practice rang out in the distance.
Abels, who has been in jail for two months, had been homeless since 2015 when he got involved in a toxic relationship and spiraled into bad habits and addiction that cost him his job managing a coffee shop and his Pleasanton condo. He was living in a trailer on the side of the road in Oakland when he was arrested.
“Working on doing this is helping me focus on what I need to do,” he said, “which is work and stay busy doing the right things.”
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