My terrific colleague Alessandro de Giorgi has an excellent series of posts on the Social Justice blog, titled Reentry to Nothing. They are based on ethnographic work he is doing and expose the difficulties of making life work on the outside.
#1 – Get a Job, Any Job
At 1:30 p.m. I get a message from Melisha, who tells me that her job application at the Walmart in East Oakland had been turned down after they performed a background check on her:
Hi bra happy Memorial day. It all bad for me sad … about the Walmart job … that Walmart did a nationwide check everthing came back from fines old address criminal record from Arkansas. Cant nobody say I didn’t try … sad … my life is fuck up. Is there any kind of away you can get that removed for me … don’t u study criminal justice. I need u on this bra I’m stress now I try to tell Ray
#2 – The Working Poor
Ray tells me they are desperate for money. He has only been able to work for a few hours a week at KFC since being released from jail last month. He still works on call for $8.00 an hour and makes less than $200 each week. Meanwhile, Melisha has been unable to find any job—despite filling out applications at McDonald’s, Pack n’Save, Ghirardelli, and several other places—and her SSI payments were suspended while she was in jail.
Alex: Right now … The two of you, how much cash do you have?
Ray: Zero. Pennies. Oh, here you go [searches into his pockets, then opens his hand to show me a few dimes]. That’s our savings right here. Oh yeah … And our free cookie [hands me a greasy paper bag from KFC with a half-melted chocolate chip cookie inside].Alex: A free cookie?
Ray: Yeah! Free cookie, from KFC. Free cookie, that’s all we got right here.
I follow Rico to the last room on the left, which is occupied by one of his old friends. Peering through the open doors, I see only decrepit rooms with littered floors. In some, people are sitting on their beds eating, smoking, watching TV, and arguing loudly. All residents of the premises share two bathrooms and showers. Like the rest of the building, they are filthy. Hip-hop music blasts from the surrounding rooms, including the one we enter. There, two middle-aged white men, whose teeth are mostly missing, are smoking crystal meth. They become nervous at the sight of me, but when Rico reassures them that I’m not a cop, they intently inhale the vaporizing crystals again. After a few minutes of silence, Rico explains that the building was formerly the site of a transitional housing program for recovering drug addicts. Now it is just a ghetto building with cheap rooms for rent. Since Rico is no longer on parole, he cannot go back to the halfway house; moving here may be his only option, because the landlord does not require a deposit or credit report.