Rachel Schuyler walked out of the Bexar County jail in April with a booklet in her hand and a purpose.
She thought of the booklet’s list of companies and organizations that could help her get housing, employment and health care as a ticket to turning her life around. She had been in the Bexar and Travis county jails since January, accused of check forgery. But at 30, she has been in and out of the system for much of her life. She was abused as a child in foster care, she said, and has a history of drug use.
Leaving jail to live with her husband in a makeshift shelter near a major thoroughfare in north Austin, Schuyler was determined to make a change and get her 9-month-old daughter back from the state. She started calling the phone numbers in the guide right away looking for work.
There was rarely anyone on the other line.
“I was looking forward to getting out and taking advantage of all the programs they have here to be able to be a productive citizen,” she said. “I’ve called all of them, and nobody’s in the offices.”
As many Texas businesses remain shuttered and the economy continues to spiral downward during the coronavirus pandemic, many social services for people reentering society from prisons and jails have come to a halt. These reentry programs are a popular piece of criminal justice reforms, championed by both Republicans and Democrats as an effort to keep people from returning to criminal behavior after they’re free.
More than 65,000 people were released from the Texas prison system in 2018, according to a state report. And hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to cycle through local jails each year. Many have substance use or mental health issues, and paired with criminal backgrounds that make it harder to find housing or employment, people leaving lockups often struggle to get back on their feet.
Things like mental health care, drug treatment and temporary housing have become more common to help people transition back into society after leaving lockup. But the coronavirus has crippled the system. While those who work for the programs and the Travis County criminal justice system are trying to evolve with the times by moving services online, many of these key services can’t be done remotely.
“There’s a big impact,” said Danny Smith, director of mental health programs at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. “How do we provide human services, which require a lot of face-to-face and hands-on services, but do it in a responsibly socially distant way?”
Smith said many of the small agencies helping those leaving incarceration have been forced to close their doors, and it’s questionable whether all will reopen. And with a monumental jump in unemployment claims, he fears employers will dismiss those with criminal backgrounds among the growing pool of applicants.
“With the unemployment rate going up, you’re going to have trouble with our guys right now,” he said.
Goodwill Central Texas helps people in the Austin area who were incarcerated with job training, career planning and obtaining documents that are needed for employment. In January, a new on-the-job pilot program began, through which people could work in Goodwill stores and complete life-skills programming at the same time. The company also has a technical academy where someone can, for example, obtain a commercial driver’s license.
But in-person services and the on-the-job program are now on pause. Jennifer Tucker, vice president of workforce advancement at the organization, said Goodwill still is able to provide some help to clients virtually, with video calls and Zoom classes. Digital access, however, is lacking for many leaving jail and prison.
“If someone doesn’t have a phone or Wi-Fi access, that has been very, very difficult,” Tucker said. “It’s not as simple now as just walking into one of our job resource centers and saying, ‘I need help.’”
The first thing Goodwill is working to open back up is the computer lab, Tucker said. She expected that with social distancing, staff would be able to let four people in at a time. People could use the computers, and staff could help them get documentation or talk through career opportunities.
Schuyler, luckily, does have a phone. Her husband reactivated it in February while he waited for her to get out of jail, she said. They are sometimes late on payments, but they manage.
Fewer people are willing to roll down their car windows to give cash or food during the pandemic, Schuyler said.
Photo credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
She needs the phone for virtual visits with her daughter, Olivia, because she said the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is no longer allowing her in-person visitation because of the coronavirus. She said she hasn’t seen her baby since she was arrested. She also needs it to check in with the county every two weeks while she’s out of jail on bond.
Schuyler said she has looked into Goodwill services, but the offices weren’t open. She has talked to a case manager with Integral Care, a Travis County foundation that provides counseling and drug treatment and helps people with mental health or substance use issues find housing. But she said foundations don’t currently have places to refer people to for help.
Instead, Schuyler wakes up every day in the loft her husband built off the side of the road and figures out what meals she’ll get them with her food stamps that day. She then spends most of the morning on the side of the road with her hound dog, Kaido, hoping for help from passing cars, though that also has been made more difficult by the pandemic.
“People don’t want to roll down their window,” she said.
When Kaido starts to fuss from the heat, Schuyler finds a place to charge their prized cellphone. With access to the internet and an outlet, she will research jobs and reach out to organizations. Schuyler has also reached out to multiple media outlets, like The Texas Observer, to share her story. She said without work, she is putting her energy into helping others in similar situations.
Although one of the conditions of her release from jail before trial is not to interact with criminals, she said it’s a hard objective to achieve while living on the streets. Still, she clarified, she stays far away “from what they do.”
Her criminal charges in Bexar and Travis counties are from four and two years ago, respectively. She said that until January, she had largely been on the run. She couldn’t get a job, and she permanently lost custody of her now 2-year-old son. After her time in jail this year, she said she can move forward. She already ordered a state ID, her first in 12 years, and she said she’s stopped using drugs.
Still, she can’t find work and, crucially, housing.
“It’s just really frustrating that I’m trying to gain that stability, and there’s just nothing,” she said.
Smith said the jail has started working with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a Travis County nonprofit, to identify people who are leaving the jail without housing and are more susceptible to severe reactions to the coronavirus. He said those over 65 or with underlying health conditions may be selected for temporary housing and be picked up at the jail by Austin’s bus service to take them there.
ECHO executive director Matt Mollica said the nonprofit is screening people before release with new COVID–19 risk factors, and it is working with the city of Austin to put some high-risk people who would be homeless after leaving jail into empty hotel rooms. He said new hotels are always becoming available, but the process is not very well established yet.
“We’d like to say that 100% of folks being discharged to homelessness are going to ECHO, but they’re not,” he said.
Like Schuyler. Without work or housing, she said she now hopes to start a nonprofit to help people like her. Sometimes when she is charging her phone, she said she has worked to create an online fundraiser, but she keeps changing its description before posting.
One thing she is steadfast on is her refusal to go back to her old life, despite what she sees around her.
“Most of the people that I know that got out the same time as me have already gone back to selling drugs,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but you can’t find a job, you go back to what you know.”