Life is full of the unexpected. From sudden job losses to surprising medical diagnoses, it’s impossible to predict all of what the future holds. Luckily, supportive community can help buffer the unpredictable. “There has to be a light,” says Fortune Court Report Writer Howard Harris, “and that light has to be given by those who are willing to offer a helping hand.”
After experiencing incarceration for 25 years, Howard knows how overwhelming the unexpected can be. Upon release, he faced a world that changed without him: “We live now in the computer age,” he notes, “[But] when I left, we were dealing with computer screens that were basically black and gray.” Without a support system to help him make sense of the changed times, the risk of recidivism could have been great. But Howard found The Fortune Society, and one year after his release, he is still on a path to success as an employee here.
But, for others with similar experiences, the future is still uncertain. Barriers to housing, employment, and education continue to make reentry challenging for many. Today, Howard is committed to helping individuals overcome these hurdles. It’s a way of contributing to the arc of progress, while also giving back. “I do believe that through my efforts… of being the best person I can be today, [I can make a difference]. When I see someone that I could possibly help…, I believe that’s how I can make amends [with my past]. And that’s what I do in my service here at Fortune.”
For veterans with justice involvement like Howard, paths to successful reentry has added complexity. While support may be found among other veterans, it can be difficult for them to trust those outside of their existing circle: “When you go through war or boot camp, you’re always taught to stand firm, back to back with the man in a foxhole,” Howard notes, “…your platoon is your family. [As a result], sometimes, [veterans] are so clannish they do themselves a disservice because… they’re not reaching out, and getting the support and help they need.” Through partnerships with organizations like NYC Veterans Alliance, The Fortune Society’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) is working to build trust with veterans in need of care, and advocating for policy reforms that impact them.
A key first step is making more veterans aware of available benefits, something that took time for Howard to learn. “Navigating to get my entitlements as a veteran and be a part of the support network that the [Veterans Association of America] offers, I didn’t really get in touch with that until I got [to Fortune],” he remembers. Howard is also learning that though awareness of the plights veterans face is gaining greater awareness within America’s collective conscious, there’s more work to be done.
While still in developing stages, Fortune is working hard to increase community support around the nuances of the veteran experience, and meet the needs of this population. And Howard is proud to be a part of this necessary work. “We’re all-embracing,” he notes, “When a veteran comes here, we try to not only offer [them] the services here that we provide, but also make sure [they receive the linkages to other sister agencies or agencies that are willing to offer [them] the help that [they need].”
Interdependence among organizations reflects the relationship needed between communities and the individuals with justice involvement who are a part of them. Simply put: None of us can do it alone. By sharing his story and working with the Fortune community, Howard is an example of how beneficial a solid network of care can be. “Whether it’s a person coming out [of incarceration] or a person [staying out of incarceration], the public needs to know that there has to be support,” he says, “You can’t leave an individual in a vacuum and expect that they’re going to transition or make changes to transition… to a positive lifestyle, unless they have the support.”
Offering this needed compassion is a part of the human experience. And regardless of past mistakes, humanity is something that we all share: “We’re not monsters. We’re human beings. We could be your neighbor next door—we’re human beings.”
*Written by David Leon Morgan