PHOTO: Dozens of volunteers turned out to walk and raise funds for Better People at an event in downtown Portland last year.
Better People, the Portland nonprofit that helps former inmates find work and stability in the community, has laid off its staff and closed its office on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But board chair Judith Belk, PhD. says the plan is to return in early 2015 with a revised program and a stronger long-term plan.
“The board voted unanimously to keep Better People open,” Belk said.
“We will go quiet for a while to give us time to look at how we are valued and how we fit into the community. We want to get a bigger picture, but also a more precise picture of what’s needed and how do we expand our services.”
Better People lost a Multnomah county contract last year after its completion numbers dropped. And Belk, who is president of the Center for Communication and Learning Skills in Lake Oswego, says it has struggled to find grant and private funding during the economic downturn.
“Because Better People offers a program that does not charge clients tuition, our ability to deliver services depends on our funding,” she said. “So we are caught in this horrible dilemma of knowing we provide a very valuable service but we’re not able to pay staff. When people have economic difficulties, so do nonprofits.”
Better People opened in 1998 to help former inmates overcome barriers to becoming productive stable members of society. People with a criminal history face barriers to finding work and housing when they are released. And people who have a felony in their background are banned from numerous work and housing opportunities.
Better People’s program combines Moral Reconation Therapy—which seeks to help former inmates change negative thinking patterns and behavior – with employment assistance and support. The nonprofit helped persuade employers to give their clients a chance, and held events that raised community awareness about those barriers to success for former inmates.
Program graduates say they gained new understanding and confidence.
"This program gave me more than just a shot at some dead-end job,” said program graduate Jason W. “It gave me freedom from the shame I was carrying. It gave me the chance to set down the burden of what other people thought of me. It gave me the opportunity to see myself in a new light. It also gave me the chance to look at how I was treating the people around me on an everyday basis."
According to the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Administration, Moral Reconation Therapy is based on solid research and has been successfully used as a 3-6 month program inside prison systems across the country. However, SAMHSA also found the program has struggled to find a niche within the criminal justice system.
In recent years Better People has been competing with some larger nonprofits that include prisoner re-entry programs among their services.
Volunteers of America, for example, serves thousands of people every year, offering everything from housing and addictions treatment to domestic violence support services. Working with prisoners before, during and after their release from jail or prison, VOA claims a 70 percent success rate for its Inact reentry program which served 109 adults in 2013. And its CPR program has had similar success with young men incarcerated as teens.
Mercy Corps has re-entry contracts with the state's Department of Corrections and helps about 135 people a year find work.
Pathfinders of Oregon offers a behavior change program similar to Better People's Moral Reconation Therapy. The agency also offers parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and youth and family counseling programs. But Pathfinders works with inmates before they are released from prison, which may make it easier for people to complete the program.
Board members and former executive director Clariner Boston say they will be talking to other nonprofits and experts to get a clearer view of the big picture, as well as an idea of where to steer the program so it can be successful. And Belk says the board has not ruled out merging or partnering with other programs.
Mercy Corps has donated office space so Boston can continue to work with the agency’s remaining clients on a volunteer basis until they can complete the program and graduate. A board member with a job development business also has offered program space.
“It is to Clariner Boston’s credit as such an ethical dedicated person, that she will make sure that these folks in the program—about eight or nine people –will finish,” Belk said.
The brainchild of Sen. Chip Shields, Better People opened its doors in 1998 after raising $80,000 and gaining the support of The Black United Fund, the Urban League of Portland and the Oregon Community Foundation as well as prominent community members, including: Annette Jolin, Ph.D, of PSU’s Administration of Justice program; Bob Warren, Jr., CEO of Cascade Corporation; and Bob Kingery, founder of Nextlink Interactive.