Searching for Home

Pictured above are some of the clients, staff, and volunteers from Span, Inc., after their visit to the MSPCA in Jamaica Plain, MA.

If you feel moved by this piece and want to know how you can help, please visit the Span, Inc. website to learn more about the work we do and to make a donation. Visit the MSPCA website for ways you can help the shelters in your area, including viewing a list of adoptable animals.

**The names of the clients pictured are not included for their privacy. All the animals pictured are currently adoptable or have already found their “forever home.”**

We’ve all seen the ASPCA commercials: a terrified dog left in the street to die. Sarah McLachlan plays softly in the background, tempting us to imagine how that animal feels. Instead, we change the channel; I know I have. I can care about that but just not today, it’s too sad. So we ignore it in the hopes that if we will it hard enough, the problem will just disappear on its own.

Likewise, we ignore people in the very same way. We step over the woman huddled outside the train station. We cross to the other side of the street so maybe the man in the ripped pants won’t ask us for change. If we ignore it, if we ignore them, then we can continue on with our day. It would be too much to acknowledge the individuals around us; we might be late for work. Fear, coupled with complacency, is a powerful combination that pushes us into inactivity and allows us to ignore the inhumanities that persist around us.

I myself am guilty of everything mentioned above; I used to do it regularly without thinking twice. I’d walk home to my warm house and make dinner, and the human life fading away in the bus stop, that I passed on my commute, left my consciousness without much effort. Sometimes I’d ease my mind with the thought that, “Next time I’ll stop and say something or give him a dollar.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t until recently that my thinking began to change. For the last year, I have had the immense privilege of working with Span, Inc. Span is a non-profit organization in Downtown Boston, whose mission is “to assist people who are or have been in prison to achieve healthy, productive and meaningful lives.” When I tell people I work with individuals who have been incarcerated I get a range of responses, very few of them devoid of judgement. Fear, again, governs the perceptions we hold about groups of people and influences what kind of treatment we decide they deserve. In the case of this “population,” they are deemed inherently bad, unworthy of human decency or a second chance. Funders overlook us, and inhumane policies go untouched because the public does nothing to demand a change.

“I’m not incarcerated [anymore] but I’m still paying my debt.”

I would again be lying if I said that I didn’t once hold many of the same misconceptions that I now seek to push back against. The difference now is that I have had the immense pleasure of sitting and holding space with these individuals. They are kind. They are decent. Many are survivors of abuse and violence themselves. They are your parents, your friends, and your neighbors. They are human. All have suffered the immense trauma of being stripped of their humanity, their clothes, and their name and forced to live like caged animals for an arbitrary amount of time. When they are finally released, they are faced with the reality that adjusting back to life “outside” will not be easy. Not only that, but they soon realize that the rules and policies in place are stacked against them. Their sentences have not ended, and for many, they never will. As one client stated, “I’m not incarcerated [anymore] but I’m still paying my debt.”

One of the most stringent barriers to reentry is finding stable housing; here in Boston, the housing process is particularly unforgiving. Research has found that incarceration and homelessness are mutual risk factors for one another. Some estimates record up to 50 percent of the homeless population as having a history of incarceration. Likewise, a history of homelessness is between 7.5 to 11.3 times more prevalent among inmate populations, compared to the general population. Expectedly, close to 75% of Span’s clients last year were homeless or in imminent risk for being so, based on the federal guidelines set forth by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Each year, 9 million community members are released from jails alone. The organizations that receive this group of individuals are overburdened and have wait lists of notable length. Span’s clients have expressed concern that, despite the tireless work Span does, their dedication and resources are often still not enough. In Massachusetts between 2014 and 2015, 1 in 5 and 2 in 5 individuals releasing were turned away from needed substance abuse and violence prevention services, respectively. At the same time, experts surmise that access to such quality services, could reduce recidivism rates by up to 20%. As one client offered, “You don’t have to wonder why people keep going back…it’s easy to go back when you’re barred from doing [anything] better.”

“They want to help me because they see me wanting to help myself…[They] show me that I’m worth it.”

Our clients at Span discuss the serious challenges associated with reentry often. The stigma that exists about individuals who have been incarcerated has a lasting effect on their ability to access housing, employment, and other support services. They describe feeling left in a daze and on their own when they come back to the community, with few people willing to give them a second chance. Clients at Span describe the organization as one of the few resources available to them, with people who truly care. They speak of Span with deep gratitude and love, describing it as a place where they feel listened to and supported no matter what. One client reflects, “They want to help me because they see me wanting to help myself…[They] show me that I’m worth it.”

The more I thought about it, the more I began to see the stark similarities between the way we treat those who are incarcerated and how we treat shelter animals. Every year, approximately 6.5 million “companion animals” pass through the shelter system. These animals, kept out of sight, behind bars, are just waiting to find a safe and stable home to call their own. They are often passed over for “designer” pets in stores, which are the product of inhumane puppy mills and blatant animal cruelty. Close to 1.5 million animals are euthanized in shelters annually. Due to the reputation of shelter animals as being damaged, aggressive, and undesirable, these beautiful animals, with a deep capacity for love, are ignored and forgotten.

Thankfully, the number of dogs and cats entering shelters has begun to decline; the most significant decrease in recent years has been amongst dogs, with the number of those passing through shelters falling from 3.9 to 3.3 million. Additionally, the number of animals euthanized has drastically decreased as well, dropping by almost half since 2011. The SPCA has begun to offer more accessible spay and neuter services to low-income pet owners to help further limit the population of homeless animals. All in all, thanks to the changing rhetoric around shelter animals and efforts on the part of shelters to address ownership needs, close to 3.2 million shelter pets are successfully adopted out each year.

Given the apparent similarities between our clients and shelter animals, I was determined to bring them face-to-face. With the kind help of a local photographer, Cameron Salvatore, we took a few clients down to the Boston MSPCA adoption center. It was there that these clients, hardened by years behind bars, showed the side of themselves that very few of us are lucky enough to see. Holding a small life in their hands, we watched as the suffocating stigmas they each bore began to melt away. One client commented on how sad it was to see the all-too-familiar bars of the cages, keeping the animals in. They described the experience as reminiscent of the visiting rooms in prison, the abandoned and stigmatized animals being taken from their cages for a brief moment of joy and friendship. The clients nonetheless reveled at the care given to the animals in transition by the shelter staff.

“It made me feel human again.”

These “violent”, “heartless”, “irredeemable” individuals were entranced in the love they were shown by these animals, who cared only about how many pats on the head they were given. They were all buzzing with excitement and even asked if there was anything more they could do to help the shelter! In the days that followed, the clients recapped their experience excitedly for anyone who would listen. They regarded the experience as a moment of uplift, a break from the misery that is often all-encompassing. One client even chimed, “it made me feel human again.”

A special thank you to: the staff at MSPCA-Angell for hosting us and for their continued work in finding every animal a loving home; Cameron Salvatore for volunteering his time and talents on this project and for capturing the tenderness of these interactions; and to the clients of Span, Inc. for their resilience and their ability to inspire everyone who meets them, especially me.

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