color photograph of an outdoor protest. several people hold up a large pink cloth banner that obscures their bodies. black handwritten text on the banner reads "Gov. Newson free them all!"
SAN RAFAEL, CA - JULY 9: Protesters hold a banner demanding prisoner release due to a coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California, on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

For many, our understanding of the carceral system might begin with stories of arrests, court dates, and follow with life inside prison, but the obstacles facing people who are caught in the system don’t end simply upon release. Returning to one’s community means reintegrating into an often hostile and prejudiced society that has changed (for some, tremendously) during one’s sentence. Advocates and researchers say that the first 72 hours upon release are the most important for someone returning home. Still, even beyond that window of time, access to housing, steady employment, counseling, and a supportive social network are all crucial to helping someone reduce their likelihood of returning to prison. It’s no small tragedy, then, that these are also the very things that the U.S. government makes so incredibly difficult to obtain. Since 2018, Impact Justice, an Oakland-based nonprofit, has sought to provide some of those resources for people returning home through their innovative Homecoming Project. 

The Homecoming Project—loosely inspired by Airbnb—pairs individuals returning home from prison with homeowners renting out a spare bedroom or studio space in their home. Impact Justice pays these hosts for six months, giving formerly incarcerated participants a safe place to call home and an opportunity to start rebuilding their lives without worrying about the burden of paying rent. Homecoming Project Director Bernadette Butler says that the program provides an alternative to transitional housing options that often require boarders to abide by rules and regulations that sabotage the goal of establishing their independence. Those regulations can include mandatory workshops that may conflict with work or school hours or stipulations around not having visitors. 

“Being isolated and being 50 miles away from your loved ones and then them not being able to visit you,” said Butler, “that is the exact opposite of what we aim to do at the Homecoming Project.”

To participate in the program, formerly incarcerated participants and hosts go through a substantial vetting process. Potential participants must have been incarcerated for 10 or more years—research shows that this group is least likely to recidivate; they cannot have committed a sex offense, and they must health-wise be able to live independently. Prospective hosts must be interviewed and undergo a “heart inspection” to ensure that their “hearts are in the right places,” noted Butler. Hosts must also participate in three mandatory training sessions on issues ranging from what to expect from parole officers to better understanding the trauma their new participants likely will have experienced while incarcerated. 

Impact Justice is also present throughout the six months, helping to navigate any conflicts that may arise, hosting events that allow program participants to meet one another, and providing support as needed. For participants, this support often comes through working with Homecoming Project’s community navigators. These navigators are often formerly incarcerated themselves and help participants craft an “independence plan” where they set unique goals and draft a plan to meet them. Upon “graduation” from the program, the hope is that participants will be better equipped to secure their own housing and employment.

Impact Justice hopes to expand the program to new cities beyond just the Bay Area, but Butler admits that finding hosts can be a challenge. In part, this has stemmed from the fact that while the participant-stays are only six months, many hosts and participants have developed such strong relationships that upon transitioning out of the program, they enter into long-term lease agreements with one another. While most matches build these relationships from scratch through the Homecoming Project, others like Rahsaan Thomas, Emily Harris, and Isaac Lev Szmonko are an example of how the program has provided a new avenue for connection among hosts and participants who had already begun to build relationships before the participant returned home from prison. Harris, currently serving as co-director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a social justice nonprofit that runs campaigns on issues ranging from police brutality and civic engagement to juvenile justice and violence prevention, was introduced to Thomas while he was still incarcerated at San Quentin. She and other organizers worked alongside Thomas to campaign for his early release. 

Prism spoke to Thomas and his Homecoming Project hosts, Harris and Szmonko, to learn more about their experience in the program thus far and what transitioning to living with each other has looked like in the few months since Thomas moved in.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Prism: How did you first hear about the Homecoming Project, and what were your initial thoughts?

Rahsaan Thomas: I think Emily might have told me about it. But at the time, this house wasn’t even thought of or purchased yet. She just told me about it because I had a chance to possibly go home in 2019. But to even get that chance, you have to show that you have community support, including housing and employment. I started reaching out to the Homecoming Project to try to get in. But ironically, that’s not how I ended up in it. I ended up in it because Isaac and Emily bought this house, and they bought it with the determination to share their blessings with others who were formerly incarcerated by converting the basement to an apartment. And when I found that they were going to do that, I was like, “Why not apply to the Homecoming Project, and they can pay my rent for a while so the burden of that bill is not all on [them] or on me?”

Emily Harris: I first learned about the Homecoming Project through Emile, a mutual friend of Rahsaan and mine, who was one of the first lifers who was in the program. He’s a good friend of ours; I think he got out of prison about five years ago and then lived down the street from me with some of my friends. And now, a different Homecoming participant is living with them. So that was my early learning about the program.

Isaac Lev Szmonko: Yeah, I also learned about it from Emily. But I will say, similarly to what Rahsaan was saying—when Emily and I first decided that we were going to buy a house together and were talking about what was important to us about that, one of the things was that we would have space for people who were in a variety of situations where paying rent didn’t seem very feasible. Emily and I met many years ago doing work to try to get people home from prison, and so it was always on our minds how many, many, many, many barriers are put in people’s way when they get home to having what they need. This was something that, if we had space, we could provide.

Harris: I think as soon as we knew that it was possible for Rahsaan to come home, it was just like Isaac and I had bought our house. We were gung-ho trying to get in touch with the Homecoming Project. We were even approved before we built the unit in our basement. And so there was a time when we thought Rahsaan may end up living in one of the extra bedrooms in the upstairs of our house because we were really committed to having him be able to land with us if he wanted to do that. 

Thomas: Also, my freedom kept getting pushed back, and they held the space for me … like they were determined that this place had my name on it. So they’re committed to making me the first person who lives here even though they kept letting people borrow it. 

Prism: Can you paint me a picture of what the transition process has been like as you learn to live with one another?

Thomas: When I first came home, this place wasn’t ready; they were still building it, and the parole wouldn’t let me live here. So we had to wait six months before I could move in. And in that space, I got put into a really nice transitional house in a really good neighborhood—Ahimsa Collective, shout out to them. But eight weeks later, my parole moved me to the Dream Center—and the Dream Center is prison conditions. It’s two people to a room, a sink in a corner of the room, a bathroom with no toilet in it, you share four bathrooms with 60-70 people. It’s on International Boulevard, which ain’t a cool boulevard. It has a day room, a chow hall—it is straight prison conditions. I had a cellie who snored, there was a bunk bed that was not comfortable, and you have to be careful, or when you get up, you’ll hit your head on the top of the bed, you know, all that kind of crap. It felt like I was back in prison. 

So on Aug. 9, I was able to move into here, and oh my God, it just feels so good. I forget to go out sometimes. I just like being in here alone because I haven’t been able to be alone for decades. [There was] always somebody there, always somebody in the space. And so to have elbow room to really just reflect, I don’t even know what to do with all this space, but it’s just beautiful. And for me to cook my own food the way I like it, you know, just perfect for me, and not have to be on the chow hall line is both awesome … and a lot of work! Three times a day, I don’t know how you people do it. But this space is a beautiful space, and it was renovated, so it’s brand new. The refrigerator is brand new, the air fryer—they got me a freaking air fryer! Everything is freshly painted, heated wood floors. It is a really nice space, and so it feels beautiful to come home here.

Prism: What support and guidance have the Homecoming Project and Impact Justice given you as you acclimate to living together and learning about one another? How involved is the program?

Thomas: The first thing I really enjoy about Impact Justice is they pay my landlords; they give them a nice, decent amount of money a month, which kind of makes me feel better by staying here because I know they spent a ridiculous amount of money renovating stuff. Like, they didn’t have to go to all that trouble, and so I’m glad that they’re being partially reimbursed or slowly reimbursed, God willing. Also, Impact Justice is supportive of me; they provide services, they tell me where I can pick up food that I don’t have to pay for, they give me a gift card every month, a little small stipend to help me out. And it’s just there, there’s a guy that’s formerly incarcerated that works there, and I can call on him if I need anything. The staff is supportive, they’re dope. 

Szmonko: And then as a host, part of what they offer—and Emily and I weren’t the people who needed this the most—but part of what they offer is an orientation for what to expect the transition will be like for people on a cultural and personal level: what are things that people might really appreciate, might really struggle with. They’re there as support for problem-solving if issues come up; they help you think about if you want to have any living agreements together about how to share space. They’re invested in the success of the relationships and are there to be a support if you need it.

Harris: And, you know, Rahsaan and I have been in each other’s lives for seven or eight years, and so I think we’re unique in the sense of the Homecoming Project. A lot of times the matches are more with strangers. But what I appreciated about the project is they recognize that what’s best for people coming home are the community and the surrounding relationships. They recognize the value of our longstanding friendship as part of the support system for Rahsaan. And in that, when we were advocating and trying to get prepared for his release, like getting things ready for the board, they were really great at getting us the letters we needed, getting the information we needed, letting us know that he was approved, and being able for us to use that to demonstrate his release readiness. I felt grateful that they understood that part of advocacy to bring people home is legitimizing a social safety net that’s gonna catch you on the outside and isn’t provided by the state. And so I think that has been helpful. Because they do work on criminal justice in the broader community, I think they’re well connected to a range of resources, and I have appreciated just seeing their presence in the community grow as the Homecoming Project has grown. That has been pretty dope.

Thomas: What I love about it is the community solving a problem and not waiting on the system. One of the root causes of crime is exclusion. When you feel like you’re not part of society, when you feel like nobody cares about you, why would you care about society? But when society shows you love and takes you into their home, you love society and want to protect society and be part of it, right? And so it’s the community solving an issue that we ain’t waiting around on the state to do, and that’s having housing so people don’t end up homeless. Rent is so expensive. You need time to save up and be prepared to face that jungle, that real cold world that’s got so many people sleeping on the ground right now. I’m glad the community is there to support me in ways that the system just wasn’t. 

Prism: I’m curious what your day-to-day looks like; how enmeshed are you all into one another’s lives?

Thomas: I work in person twice a week, and then I go to school once a week. I’m so busy. So for days, I’m gone, but there’s many times when I’m coming back, and they invite me in for dinner, or I come in, and I end up walking the dog because nobody’s here, and this dog is just looking at me with these sad-ass eyes. I’m always coming to get the mailbox key. So I feel like we spend a lot of time in our separate corners, but then we spend a lot of time together too.

Harris: Yeah, I feel like one of the funny adjustments has been our dog. I think he’s in love with Rahsaan, so now when Rahsaan comes home, he’s up on the windowsill, wagging his tail and whining. So that has been very sweet. And I think that one of the other things that’s really wonderful about the relationship that we’ve built is that I know a lot of the people that Rahsaan did time with, and I’m in community with a lot of advocates. Isaac and I’ve been hosting a lot of those people in our home in a variety of ways for a long time, so it’s also just felt like a communal space for hosting people for dinner. I host a lot of meetings here for people who are home from prison and that type of thing, so that has been really wonderful. Rahsaan cuts people’s hair, and I get to see a bunch of my friends come through when they’re getting their hair done. 

We have separate entrances, and we can get into the house fairly separately, but we carve out time to eat with each other and to see each other. Also when you live with somebody, you’re texting about all the things: “I have a package coming” or “do you need anything from the grocery store?” And so that has been a really sweet part of it. I remember, during early COVID-19, Rahsaan and I were not able to talk for a long time because the prisons were on lockdown. And then, at some point, I remember hearing him on “Ear Hustle” [a podcast created and produced in San Quentin State Prison] for one of the first times, and I remember your laughter on “Ear Hustle.” I remember crying because I hadn’t heard your laugh in a very, very long time, and now I get to live with that laugh, and it’s one of the best parts because he’s a jokester and always just kind of poking and being silly. 

I think there’s a joy in that, but it also feels really resonant of how we’ve been on a journey. I’ve been on the last part of his journey to support his freedom, and I feel like in the last seven years there was a crew working to get Rahsaan free, and I got to be part of that crew. I mean, he led us in his freedom journey, but having gotten to be a part of that, it’s like, I know how hard it was for him to get out of prison, so I know how big of a deal it is for his laughter to be in my home. I just constantly find myself [thinking] that he’s in my kitchen telling jokes, and I can feel and remember the times where I was missing being able to hear him in those long lockdown periods. I haven’t told you that, Rahsaan.

Prism: I know that Impact Justice hopes to expand the potential of the project in part by recruiting new hosts. For potential hosts who don’t have these preexisting relationships or may not have intimate direct experience with someone who has been inside, what advice would you give them? How would you shepherd them into this project?

Harris: We’ve talked with a lot of folks about the program and spoken really highly of it, and I’ve helped get a lot of hosts and participants into the program. I think of it as one of the best resources we have locally to support people in their reentry journeys. I work at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and we have a network of people who want to fight mass incarceration, so we’ve been able to help inform people about the Homecoming Project and invite them into the network if they’re interested. There are many people who recognize that the system, as it is, is really harmful and want to help change that, and this is one of the ways that they can do that personally. And the experience is just a really beautiful one with a lot of support and care and intention into making sure that people are a good match to live together. 

Szmonko: Yeah, I think many people in this country are really mad about how many people there are in prison. A lot of people know that when people are coming home, they face discrimination in housing, in jobs, in government programs; that they can face a lot of shame and stigma, that there can be a lot of racism in how people are treated, and what I would say is this is such a beautiful and concrete thing you can do in someone’s life to capture all of that. It’s such a deeply personal way of contributing to changing it. I, of course, hope that people will also be involved in thinking about the systemic change of it, how we get more people home, how we remove more of these barriers, and how everyone coming home can go into a home instead of a facility that feels just like prison to them. But in the meantime, while we’re trying to build that, this is just a really special way to get to support change in one person’s life.

Even if people don’t have space in their homes to do this, they should contribute to the project financially, like the fact that Homecoming has funding to be able to provide payment for their hosts and to be able to provide a little bit of extra financial support in the way of groceries, that they can have a staff is what makes this possible. That is a way that people could contribute to the project, even if they don’t own their space or can’t rent a space or don’t have extra room.

Thomas: I want to add that I feel especially for Emily; she was already part of the incarcerated people’s community, she was already coming into the prison, and also, I felt like that gave her an advantage because she knows so many formerly incarcerated people and incarcerated people. It’s really easy to vet good candidates. And in general, we live with another human being in a bathroom; we’re easy to get along with … the problem is you guys out here.

Harris: One of the things that I see as really unique about the Homecoming Project and one of the reasons it’s really necessary is that there are a lot of ways in which community members who are coming home from prison either have exclusions around where they can live because of having a conviction, or, for example, there’s a significant number of incarcerated transgender individuals, and there’s no safe reentry housing for them. The Homecoming Project has been one of the spaces that has seen that gap and has been working to fill it and help create safety for a population that is particularly vulnerable. That’s just a piece that I think is really unique about the possibility of Homecoming and also one of the reasons it really needs to be able to be scaled beyond the Bay Area.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.