A second chance: Dallas program that gives former prisoners job help gets a boost

DALLAS — As a child growing up in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas, Vonesha Gates, 34, didn’t have many role models in her life.

“It’s a small community,” she said. “Not too many job opportunities, so it’s easy to get in trouble.”

Gates said her community also lacked a path to economic stability – a recipe for young kids to fall into gangs and soon, a life of drugs and crime. “I got into an abusive relationship. And he was into heavy drugs, which caused me to indulge somewhat,” she said. “I kind of lost myself for a while.”

Gates distanced herself from friends and family – including her two kids – and eventually went to jail in March 2023 following a series of bad decisions, she said.

After a few tough weeks behind bars, Gates heard about a program that could give her a second chance on a healthy path, one that would lead to a steady job and a home with her kids one day.

“The program just reminded me of how important I am, and how it’s never too late to bring it on back and love yourself,” she said.

For two years, Volunteers of America Texas’ Dallas Re-Entry Career Pathways Program – in partnership with the city of Dallas – has annually helped about 170 formerly incarcerated or soon-to-be released men and women. Dallas City Council approved in September 2022 a $250,000 agreement contracting VOA Texas to provide employment and workforce training services.

The re-entry program – which is getting a boost this year from a $25,000 grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation – provides assessments and case management, financial and employment services, vocational training and educational assistance to clients.

An incarcerated person who is nearing a release date or has completed his or her sentence at any time in the past five years can participate in the program.

Twice a day, Gates would meet for class, where she’d learn anything from yoga practices and meditation to résumé writing and parenting education. “I had something to do,” Gates said. “It kind of felt like a job so it made my days go by smoother.”

Before learning of the Pathways program, she remembered worrying about plans for when she would be released from jail. “I felt like ‘If I were to get out of jail right now, where can I go? What can I do?’ ” Gates said.

Long-term commitment

Angela King, VOA Texas President and Chief Executive Officer, said her organization, which serves people in Texas and New Mexico, has a long-term commitment to helping people successfully come back into the community after incarceration.

“Our founders had a real passion for the people in the prison system,” King said. “And here in Texas, we’ve been operating re-entry services for over 40 years.”

VOA Texas is the local affiliate of the national, faith-based social service organization with over 125 years of operation.

In addition to its signature program focused on helping people re-enter society, the Texas-based organization also helps provide affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities, veteran services, substance use treatments and workforce training.

VOA Texas gets its clients through referrals from jails and prisons and then places them in boarding houses for at least 90 days. Once released, clients focus on gaining employment, learning new technology, reuniting with family and setting goals for themselves.

Many policies, like requirements to disclose criminal convictions on applications and background checks, often prevent formerly incarcerated people from finding a job, increasing the risk of homelessness and re-offenses.

But job seekers with criminal pasts are more likely to get hired if their workforce program staff have good relationships with employers, according to a case study published in December from Urban Institute, a racial justice research organization.

A second chance

Gates was released from jail in June 2023, immediately moving into a transitional boarding home as part of her probation. She’s been able to save up money for a place of her own.

Staff with VOA Texas helped her with transportation, job searching, résumé writing, and professional clothes for interviews. “I had no excuses,” she said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get worried and discouraged. And before you know it, you’re back doing what you do know, which may not be good.”

“They provided me with a whole other avenue where I had no reason to do the bad things I once did,” she said. “I had something to look forward to. That made me feel good about myself.”

Barriers to re-entry

Finding a safe place to live once released from jail or prison could make the difference between a person’s second chance or falling into old habits and potentially re-offending, King said.

“Housing is a huge issue for people, particularly for folks who have criminal backgrounds, particularly if you’re a woman and you have a couple of children,” King said.

King said formerly incarcerated job-seekers find an easier time landing a job than in the past, when historically a criminal record closed many doors. VOA Texas has slowly gathered a network of employers willing to work with its clients.

“Employers are finding the folks to be good employees,” King said. “I would encourage folks who own small businesses and are hiring folks to look at people with [criminal] backgrounds with a little more openness and consider giving folks a second and third chance because I think that will pay off for them.”

It’s harder to match women with jobs than for men, who typically find warehouse work, King said. To open up clients’ job options, VOA Texas then partners with workforce training organizations like the South Dallas Employment Project, Dallas College and Workforce Solutions.

The tighter labor market over the past three years has also forced employers to look at those with criminal pasts as potential workers in ways they haven’t previously, King said.

The program works with about 30 people at a time. A Dallas County jail program served 338 people in 2023, with fewer than 4% of clients re-offending over time, King said.

Taylor Galvan, a VOA Texas employment specialist in the pathways program, visits a group of men and women at the Dallas County jail every other week for briefings and one-on-one sessions focused on each person’s goals.

Reliable transportation to interviews and work is the biggest hurdle Galvan’s clients face, along with access to professional clothes, which cuts into their self-esteem and motivation to keep going, she said.

“We do a lot of mock interviews to get ready, so this builds confidence just being there to talk through it,” Galvan said.