Research from a team of Cornell and Ithaca College faculty and students provided key insights to Tompkins County legislators as they recently approved funding for a new housing program to help formerly incarcerated people.
Two houses of the Sunflower Housing program, a collaboration between Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County (OAR); Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS); and Ultimate Re-Entry Opportunity for Tompkins County (URO), will open next month with up to 12 residents, nine men and three women.
Along with housing, residents will receive computer training, help finding jobs and connections to other local resources. A full-time house manager will oversee the program.
Three faculty members – Cornell’s Joe Margulies, professor of government and Jamila Michener, associate professor of government, both in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Ithaca College’s Paula Ioanide, professor of comparative race and ethnicity studies at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity – have been volunteering as part of URO’s Data Development Working Group for about three years. They recruited students from each school and focused their work on investigating systemic barriers to reentry.
The faculty and students studied barriers related to housing, transportation employment and health. Students put up fliers at Gimme Coffee and the Tompkins County Public Library, offering gift cards for people who would be willing to share their experiences, and then interviewed 54 formerly incarcerated people living in Tompkins County.
After the interviews, the students coded and analyzed the data and investigated how the program would reduce the number of individuals released from state prison to the homeless shelter system; potentially offer savings to the county’s public safety, homeless shelter and social service budgets; and significantly reduce recidivism in the county. Further reports on transportation, employment and health are on the way, Ioanide said.
“It ended up becoming a little numbing when we heard people talk about how bad the housing situation is,” said Cosimo Fabrizio ’22, a Cornell government and economics major. “Even for people who did have housing, the conditions were roach-infested and broken down. They had shady landlords.”
Along with housing, transportation, employment and health care, students found that a lack of access to technology like cell phones or computers was also a barrier for reentry.
“It really hit home for me because my uncle (who was incarcerated) is going through similar things,” said Mar’Quon Frederick ’24, a government major in A&S. “He can’t get a job or find a place to stay. I think someone who serves their time and has righted their wrong should have an easier transition into society.”
After their research was completed, students attended Tompkins County Legislature meetings to share their findings and lobby for the program.
“That was really effective. People enjoyed hearing from the students and seeing that they were getting involved in local issues,” said Martha Robertson, a Tompkins County legislator and chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee. “We hear it over and over again, that people’s whole lives shouldn’t be determined by the worst day in their lives. Everybody makes mistakes and I’m really proud of being part of a system that recognizes that and sees people as human beings who have potential.”
In October, the legislature approved $199,656 for the first year of the program – a vote that was an inspiration to Fabrizio.
“We did the research, we engaged with the community and we had academics working as academics should be working,” he said. “Then we saw policy being formulated. Our research didn’t just sit around, but we had money approved so that people won’t be on the streets.”
Though INHS hadn’t before tackled a reentry program like this one, the organization “decided it was an opportunity to pilot a program that is desperately needed,” said Johanna Anderson, INHS executive director.
Richard Rivera, a program coordinator and crisis intervention coordinator at OAR and reentry housing coordinator for URO, said his organizations reviewed successful models from throughout the state as they created the project.
“We’re building this on a harm-reduction, restorative justice model,” he said. “There are no such things as broken human beings, just broken systems.”
Anna Lifsec ’21, a college scholar in A&S, conducted background research on barriers to reentry, while also working with Rivera on the Parole Prep project, which helps incarcerated people prepare for parole hearings. “Projects like the (Sunflower Housing) project attempt to take close research-based dives into deeply flawed systems, with the hope of providing long-lasting change,” she said. “It is absolutely crucial to have immediate relief projects, such as parole prep, working in conjunction with thoughtful and pointed research that has long-term policy implications.”
Professors say the research project held multiple lessons for their students.
“There is no equivalent to experiential community-based applied research where you are accountable to real human beings,” Ioanide said. “The research was hard, tedious and complicated, but all of the students understood the stakes of what they were doing.”
“I’m enormously proud of my students for their continued involvement, putting their moral convictions to work to make a difference in people’s lives,” Margulies said.
“Learning is about so much more than what happens in the classroom,” Michener said. “It is about being an actively engaged denizen of the world by applying knowledge in ways that transform communities.”
Along with research help, Cornell also donated furniture from the closure of Balch Hall to help set up the apartments for the first residents. And after the other reports are released, a new set of students will be working on ideas and policy advocacy in the areas of health, transportation and employment, Ioanide said.
“These houses are built on a web of relationships,” Rivera said. “Traditionally the measure of the criminal justice system has been the sentencing, but we want to change the measure of success to how we can restore individuals to the community.”