Messenger: Merger of two St. Louis prison ministries draws attention to need for housing

Anthony D’Agostino tells a story that could have come right out of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

You remember the scene.

Red — Morgan Freeman’s character — gets out of prison and starts a job bagging groceries. He’s so used to prison life, he asks his boss for permission every time he needs a bathroom break. He’s been locked up so long he’s just not ready to face the real world. In his boarding house apartment, he climbs on a chair and gets ready to hang himself.

Then he sees the words carved into the wooden beam: “Brooks was here.”

Red chooses a different path than his former prison mate.

D’Agostino has met many men like Red and Brooks. As executive director of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Ministry, D’Agostino and his colleagues help men who have fulfilled their prison sentences — many have been in for much of their adult lives — return to society as free men.

It’s not an easy task.

Not long ago he checked on a client in an apartment where he had been placed. He asked the man to show him where he sleeps. He went past the bedroom to the bathroom and pointed to an area on the floor. It made him feel like home.

That’s the greatest challenge many felons have when returning to society, D’Agostino says. First finding a home, and then finding a way to feel normal again.

“If somebody is worried about where they’re going to sleep at night,” he says, “there is no psychological safety.”

For the past several years, after having an increasingly difficult time finding places for their clients to live, Criminal Justice Ministry took matters into its own hands. The nonprofit has bought four buildings, and is working on a fifth, in the Dutchtown and Bevo Mill area. That way, the organization’s clients — many of them veterans — have a place to stay with affordable rent. CJM covers the rent for the first couple of months and then, as the men get work, raises it to $450, where it will stay as long as the men live there.

Now that process of finding housing for felons trying to rebuild their lives in St. Louis is about to get more difficult. That’s because CJM has merged with Let’s Start, a similar ministry that was founded by Sister Jackie Toben 30 years ago. For three decades, Toben and other volunteers have been meeting weekly with recently incarcerated women who get together to talk about the often difficult transition back to society.

Women face many of the same issues men returning from prison do, D’Agostino says — housing, employment, education, addiction — but often the transition is made even more difficult because about 80 percent of the women have dependents.

Finding housing will be more difficult and more expensive. Rebuilding families is a challenge.

To help house women returning from prison, the nonprofit now plans to buy a larger building where it can have two-bedroom apartments for families. The expense is one of the reason why the two organizations decided to merge.

It’s a common St. Louis problem.

In many ways, the nonprofit world in this region is much like the government world: lots of division and duplication.

“This is the historic problem with St. Louis,” D’Agostino says. “We are all in silos. In the nonprofit world so many of us are often seeking money from the same sources. I wish more organizations would merge like this.”

It helps that Criminal Justice Ministry and Let’s Start have similar values and histories. CJM was founded 40 years ago by Father J. Edward Vogler and Sister Mary Pius Fagan. Vogler had been a chaplain at the city jail and recognized a need to help men connect to services when they tried to reconnect with society. Both organizations find that their “graduates” have a significantly smaller recidivism rate than those ex-inmates who don’t utilize their services. At CJM, only 22 percent of the ministry’s clients end up back in prison, compared with a 62 percent national average.

The key, D’Agostino says, is to focus on the successes, sometimes the tiniest ones, like moving from a floor to a bed.

And that sometimes means having patience. Not everybody is ready for a job right away, or a new routine. “We have to walk with them,” he says.