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Jeff ~ Returning Citizens

The black and brown communities in Philadelphia are impacted enormously by the pandemic. Our community will feel the pain for years, if not decades, to come."

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“The challenges for Philadelphia have been tremendous in 2020. We already have the highest poverty rate in the country as well as one of the largest populations in the country of returning citizens, people who are returning from prison. But we are also experiencing a significant rise in gang violence and gun violence, more than we have had in a long, long time. Like many parts of the country, many of the Philadelphia industry sectors are being hit really hard by stress of the pandemic and other economic challenges. And, like many other cities, we’re facing the challenges of systemic racism, which continue to raise their head in our communities, with no really good direction for a way out.

My work involves helping men and women who have been judicially-involved navigate all those challenges, including getting a job. For returning citizens and people with criminal backgrounds, the unemployment rate BEFORE COVID-19 was 27%. That’s greater than the peak of the Great Depression. And as bad as things are today, we're only at 8.5% unemployment as a country. But for returning citizens and people with criminal backgrounds, it is a new, harsh reality.

I always say you eat an elephant one bite at a time. And the same thing with the men and women we work with, we try and chip away at those little things that they might lead to bigger things like career opportunities and stability and all the things that can lead them to success. There are so many little things that can get in their way, so part of our job is asking 'What do you really need, what is getting in your way of moving forward?'

Typically I hear: I need transportation. I need to feel I'm okay going out and being in the community or going to work on a SEPTA bus where, you know, there could be a spread of the virus. I need to know that my kids are going to be okay. I have no place to take them for daycare because their daycare centers are all closed. I need to use my laptop, but I only have one computer and my kids are on it for school all day and I can't access it. I have a hard time even paying for Internet access on a monthly basis.

We have to really dive into those hard questions and figure out what each person’s barriers are before we can understand how best to be supportive.

What's happening in the streets is that COVID is having an impact that's going to last, beyond the physical contact with the disease. The black and brown communities in Philadelphia are impacted enormously by the pandemic. Our community will feel the pain for years, if not decades, to come. I’ve seen a rash of suicides. Over the last months, we've seen heroin and drug addiction on the spike again. These were things that were high priorities for us going into the pandemic and yet have now taken more of a backseat because facilities are closed, agencies aren't serving as many, and people who need access are being denied access because they don't have computers or they don't have virtual or internet access to be able to get support they need. We need to be mindful of these basic concerns as we go forward during the pandemic. We just can't make our world virtual in a non virtual world. We have to remember that there are people out there who don't have access that we need to continue to touch and see and feel.

There’s a humanity that comes with the human services work we do. If it’s done in a smart way, you can continue to connect with people. I recently called one of the members of my team and asked him what he was doing. He said he was fishing. And I said that's really great, I'm glad you're fishing, but are you really working? Turns out, he took a gentleman out fishing, because it was a safe way of connecting with someone on the outside.

We need to do more of this, figuring out how to connect in a truly meaningful way in a COVID, and post-COVID world. We all have to think through this a little bit better. Zoom calls are simply not the answer to all of our challenges.”

-- Jeff, JEVS Human Services (November 2020).


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