Merlene Davis: Faith group works to get identification for ex-offenders, find affordable housing

When I attended the 10th Annual Nehemiah Action Assembly back in April, I found myself wondering why the faith community continued to push for social change that politicians weren't delivering.

The assembly is the mega event at which members of the Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-Action group bring constituents together to hear elected officials try to dodge questions. Knowing that, few politicians manage to attend.

This spring's event, which drew 1,680 people, focused on two issues: affordable housing and helping long-term jail inmates obtain necessary identification before they are released.

Of the four Lexington council members who attended, only two — Councilmen Chris Ford and Steve Kay, At-Large — supported the establishment of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would be subsidized by a 0.5 percent increase in the fee levied by the local government on insurance premiums. The money would be used to create safe housing for struggling residents.

That same issue has been on the BUILD agenda for six years with no resolution and the problem continues to increase as paychecks decrease.

So, I asked the Rev. Joseph L. Owens, a longtime BUILD leader, why the 22 congregations in the organization don't simply take up a few collections and fund the trust themselves.

That's not what BUILD is all about, he said.

"We don't provide programs. We churches are coming up with what those residents can't afford, like paying the light bill.

"What we are doing is stopgap," he said. "The crack has to be fixed or more and more people will fall through."

And the government has the resources to fix those cracks. The increased fee amounts to a few premium coffees, a small price to pay for our neighbors.

BUILD's job, Owens said, is to keep the pressure on elected officials to do what's best for their constituents. Too many council members think the issue of affordable housing doesn't affect the people they represent, he said. Some council members say, "My dog is not in that fight," he said. "But they are not just council members for one district. In BUILD, we have all sides of town represented and we don't want people treated that way. Collectively, we are not going to let you do that to your citizens.

"We are going to stay on it because too many people are being affected by (unsafe housing)," Owens said. "It doesn't have to be luxury, but it does have to be affordable and decent."

I assume we'll be revisiting that issue again in 2014.

The second issue, identification for ex-offenders leaving jail, isn't quite as cut and dried.

Owens wants anyone leaving jail to have the proper ID that will enable him or her to find housing, get a driver's license or find employment. He said this is necessary because some forms of IDs expire while long-term inmates are serving their time in the Fayette County Detention Center.

Without identification, ex-offenders have a difficult time acquiring birth certificates and Social Security cards, and the Circuit Court Clerk can't issue IDs without the proper paperwork.

Fayette County Circuit Court Clerk Vincent Riggs said there is only so much he can legally do about that.

"I sympathize that it is problematic," he said. But "we do what the Transportation Cabinet and the General Assembly says we can do."

While the state Department of Corrections works all that out before prisoners are released, local facilities don't always have the personnel or wherewithal to do that.

But Owens said Rodney Ballard, director of FCDC, was already working on re-entry issues.

Ballard soon will be hiring a re-entry coordinator with a background in social work and education, who will not only ensure all paperwork is completed, but will also be conducting a risk and needs assessment for inmates before release and doing follow-up afterward.

His plans include a computer lab so inmates can produce a properly formatted résumé, and training programs that would help in future job searches.

"We can no longer warehouse people," Ballard said. "Some dangerous people, but a much larger number is people who have done dumb things. We want to work with those folks and get them back on the right track, try to turn being in jail into a positive."

At the BUILD assembly, Riggs and Ballard agreed to work together to iron out any wrinkles in ex-offenders getting IDs.

Riggs, a jail representative and members of BUILD, will explore the Indianapolis Re-entry Educational Facility in June to see how it works and perhaps bring back some ideas.

"I'm going on my own dime to see what they are doing," Riggs said.

Ballard said the re-entry coordinator won't be on the job that soon, but another employee will go.

So, BUILD's record this year is 1-1.

"Every little bit helps," Owens said. "Biblically, we are supposed to be sure that justice is done. This is not a sideline. Not just about mercy, or feeding people when they are hungry. It is about what keeps them poor and marginalized."