As I handed Tony, a Real Change vendor, his papers last Wednesday morning, he told me it was his last week selling Real Change.
“Thanks to Real Change I’ve managed to save up enough money to go to Mexico, where I am going to work as a private English tutor,” he said.
Interested in hearing more, I caught up with Tony on his way out the door. His story is familiar. Tony came to Seattle over a year ago and spent 12 months looking for work in his field: sales. Due to his age (53) and criminal record (from an arrest in 1991), he could not find anything. He heard about Real Change from other vendors he met through the Union Gospel Mission and figured he’d give it a try. Although he feels like selling the paper is beneath his skill level, Tony is grateful that Real Change gave him a chance. With a passport, Mexican visa, new ATM debit card and $2,000 in his bank account, Tony will board a bus next week headed for Mérida, Mexico. He chose Mérida, capital of the Yucatán, because of its reputation as the safest city in all of Mexico.
Tony’s story attests to the critical need for a low-barrier employment program like Real Change. Study after study has shown the negative correlation between a prison record and a job seeker’s employment prospects. Consider these facts, cited in a 2011 article by Amy Solomon, of the U.S. Department of Justice, entitled “In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment”: There were 14 million arrests in 2009; one-third of American adults have been arrested by the time they are 23; incarceration has profoundly disproportionate impacts on communities of color; employers openly acknowledge that an arrest has a negative impact on an application, the majority stating that they would “probably” or “definitely” not be willing to hire a candidate with a criminal record. All this is in spite of the well-documented fact that working is the best way for ex-offenders to avoid committing another offense.
Is an employer’s hesitation to hire an ex-offender warranted? New research suggests that under many circumstances, it’s not. Solomon cites a study that identifies a “point of redemption” after which a person who has been arrested becomes indistinguishable from someone similar in the general public, in terms of risk for future arrest. For youth, it takes about eight years to reach this point. For older people like Tony, it can come in as little as three or four years.
When a prospective vendor comes into Real Change for orientation, we don’t do criminal background checks. Heck, we don’t even ask for ID. They give us their name, or at least the name they wish to go by, and we give them some sales training and 10 free papers to get started. We open our doors to just about anyone, although if they want to stick around, they need to meet strict standards outlined in our code of conduct. Just last week we took disciplinary action against three vendors who violated the code.
The rare exceptions notwithstanding, the vast majority of our vendors abide by our code of conduct. Tony is a prime example of a vendor who took advantage of the opportunity we provided. He stashed away enough to take a huge step forward in his life.
We salute Tony for his accomplishment as he takes the next step, and we feel honored we were there for him. Tony leaves Seattle Sept. 16. During our orientation that same day, you can be sure we will be there to welcome the next group of prospective vendors, whether or not they have a criminal record.