Nothing But Net

With jerky, faltering movements, Jimmie made his way across our parking lot and through our front door. He’s a smiley – and normally very agile – man with a positive outlook on life, but we hadn’t seen him for a few weeks and today he was definitely not his usual happy, spry self. Turns out, he’d had back surgery. Three vertebrae shorter and a quick hospital discharge later, Jimmie’s gait was hobbled by the crippling combination of extreme pain and deadened nerve endings.

In his pocket was a prescription. The docs had assured Jimmie that he would need to take medication for these post-op weeks and months, in combination with physical therapy, and that eventually both the pain and the numbness will abate, as will, hopefully, his need for pain medication. At that point they’ll be able to assess the success of the surgery and determine any further course of medical treatment. Chances are, he’ll then pick up where he left off, with agility and positivity, a working man who loves life. For now, he just needed to get that prescription filled and survive this agonizing period of recovery.

We had first met Jimmie when he got released from prison, after serving more than two decades of time for his involvement in a homicide as a teenager. He had come straight to Project Return as soon as he got out, and we kicked in with our individualized job readiness ramp-up and our connections to employers. Jimmie had risen through the ranks and gained employment. Shortly thereafter, however, years of substandard in-prison medical attention caught up with him, pulling him off that assembly line and onto a hospital gurney for this spinal surgery.

Trouble is, the hospital cut him loose with a scrip that would cost more than $400 to fill, and Jimmie didn’t have a dime. Unemployed, staying in the mission, no family, no friends who could help, and – no small matter – in debilitating pain and numbness, with clear medical instructions about how to navigate his post-surgery existence, Jimmie needed help.

Who among us is not vaguely aware of the so-called Safety Net? Most of us have never fallen into it ourselves, but we imagine it’s a well-woven latticework of diverse entities – large and small, government and private, faith-based and non – that serve to catch our fellow community members in time of need, across a variety of needs. How comforting, how great! At Project Return, we’re part of that latticework too. But pricey prescriptions are beyond our realm of service, so we activated our awareness of the health-related Safety Net and our positive relationships with peers across the service world, confident that a partnering agency here or there would certainly fill the gap and hold Jimmie in his time of need.

Problem is, we were wrong. Turned away at every pass. Nonprofit health clinics, governmental service offices, agencies whose sole mission is emergency financial assistance, charities exclusively focused on prescription medication provision; all of high reputation and well-meaning people, and all told us “no”. Some did suggest processes or enrollments that could help but would be protracted as well as mind-bendingly complicated….essentially also a “no”.

We need to put the net back in Safety Net! Picture your average net, and ask yourself, what is the ratio of gap to thread? How much is space to fall through, versus fabric to catch us and cushion the fall? Seems like the gaps are big and the threads are thin. Too much, and too many, are falling through. Especially those who are striving, against the odds, to begin new lives after incarceration.

The same week that Jimmie hobbled into our office, Amanda appeared with a different-yet-similar immediate need. Amanda has been the picture of post-prison success. Released from prison more than a year ago, she came straight to Project Return and put all of our programs and services to her best advantage, propelling herself into a manufacturing job, gaining a promotion with that employer, and then enrolling in community college. She’d also managed, against the odds, to get on a lease in an apartment, which she shared with a roommate so that it would be affordable.

The roommate, though, had suddenly and unexpectedly moved out, leaving Amanda high and dry for the rent. Having just paid start-of-semester fees, Amanda did not have the $250 that the landlord needed within 48 hours, and eviction was imminent. A person who had done everything right since coming out of the prison gates, with a stellar work record and her sights on an associate’s degree in information technology, now about to be put out.

Again, our minds went to the Safety Net, this time especially the part of the Net that’s focused on the issue of affordable housing and homelessness. Calling all Eviction Abaters! Again, though, our targeted inquiries came up dry. How, we wondered, could organizations – especially those committed specifically to emergencies that threaten stable housing – exempt someone like Amanda from their aid? In part, Amanda’s very employment and income status disqualified her from the Net assistance she needed.

Fortunately for both Jimmie and Amanda, we fired up an EOTE* mentality and got them on track. In Jimmie’s case, in the face of Net failure, and with admittedly a certain amount of exasperation, we put on our advocacy hats and drove him right back to the hospital that had (so glibly) discharged him with (pricey) scrip in (disabled) hand. We stood shoulder to shoulder with him and appealed, in our way, to what we imagined could be their sense of humanity and medical ethics, and we gained him the medicine he should have had all along. In Amanda’s case, stinging from Net rejection, we shifted our sights to the faith community, working the phones and connecting to the compassion that streams through our city’s houses of worship. Two congregations said “yes” (thank you!!) and we delivered Amanda’s rent payment on time.

Unfortunately, for people returning to our community from incarceration, these difficulties are all too common.

*Ends Of The Earth

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