Longmont Man Finds Hard-earned Success, Overcoming Checkered Record
J.J. Zepp has been clean for six months.
In and out of jail since he was 18, the amount of time he’s spent in jail or on probation comes out to about 10 years. He dealt with alcoholism, substance abuse and other emotional issues before having an epiphany with his most recent criminal case.
Now he is set to graduate from drug court in January. He’s formed a relationship with Longmont police and has met with the mayor and public safety chief. He has a job and a place to live.
His success hasn’t been a straight line. Zepp first worked at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant when he was released, around November, as it’s “felon-friendly,” he said. But, after paying for child support and restitution, he was only bringing home $300 each week for rent and other basic needs.
“It was very difficult to get ahead, so I had relapsed,” he said, adding there were other factors as well that contributed to his using drugs again. .
When he began going to 12-step program meetings and getting clean again, Zepp met someone who agreed to let him work for his construction company, which gave him higher pay and more hours.
“If you do the right things for the right reasons, good things happen,” Zepp said. “Our world and our society and how they may look at criminals, you can overcome those things if you’re in the right place.”
Hope for prevention
While Zepp has been able to find work through peer connections, not everyone has that support network.
Glenn Allan Tefft spoke to the Times-Call in 2017 about how difficult it was to find housing and employment with three prior felony convictions. While he secured job interviews, he felt he was judged for being homeless or denied due to his background.
Tefft was found dead in a tent in Kensington Park on Oct. 29 . The cause and manner of death have not yet been released, but Longmont police don’t believe it was suspicious.
Since the Times-Call’s 2017 story, Longmont police have started several initiatives aimed at working with people facing struggles similar to Tefft’s who want to break the cycle of homelessness and drug use.
The city doesn’t want to see people dying on its streets, said Longmont police Deputy Chief Jeff Satur.
In September, a woman named Katherine Rogers was found dead on Main Street. Satur said police usually respond to three public, unattended deaths per year.
With programs like LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which began in July, Satur hopes the department will prevent deaths such as Tefft’s and Rogers’. The department received a two-year grant from the state to fund the pilot program, one of four in Colorado, which focuses on those with substance abuse disorders who often cycle through the criminal justice system, said Denise Suniga, program manager for LEAD.
Longmont officers can use their discretion to refer people to LEAD, either as a diversion from an arrest for a low-level crime, or as a social referral for people they are often in contact with who could benefit from the program. If the person accepts the referral or diversion, they must have an assessment with a case manager within two weeks.
“We really want to build strong relationships through intense case management,” Suniga said.
The case manager will then help guide the person toward prioritizing his or her needs, case management coordinator Emily Van Doren said. People might be facing struggles getting a job, housing, health care or even a simple government ID, which can block their access to other needs.
“There’s so much that piles up, that finding a way to decide which thing is a priority is very hard,” Van Doren said. Case managers “walk alongside” the clients, so they can help them to prioritize but also ensure the program is participant-driven.
For those with a criminal record, the challenges already in place from other issues they might face, like addiction or homelessness, can double.
“When you think about employment searches for an average person, sometimes that can be challenging work, depending on the industry,” Van Doren said. Other factors, including work history and skillset also plays a role.
Van Doren said case managers in the LEAD program hope to build relationships with local employers and landlords toopen more doors for clients. Right now, case managers use a list of employers who are interested in helping clients who join the police department’s Angel Initiative, which helps connect people who want help with treatment facilities.
The low ratio of case managers to clients also helps, as case managers really get to know clients and can help them find individualized opportunities or speak with a potential employer about them. For example, a client who had gone through other programs like the Angel Initiative had never told anyone he was a veteran, Suniga said. That information opens up new opportunities for the case manager to pursue.
Having a criminal history also can affect one’s search for housing. While Zepp was able to secure jobs, he said it’s “next to impossible” to find a place where he can both afford rent and be accepted by the landlord.
“There’s so many applicants that are applying for the same apartment that don’t have felonies,” he said. Right now, he is renting a room from a woman he met at a 12-step meeting, while trying to save four months’ worth of rent to convince a leasing agent in the new year.
A number of programs now part of the coordinated entry system seek to solve this problem through providing housing of their own. Clients are assessed when they enter the system and sent either to navigation services or to the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, if they have greater needs.
Opportunities, but after greater struggle
In Boulder, Bridge House provides navigation services through its Path to Home and Ready to Work programs. The Ready to Work program provides transitional housing in exchange for rent as well as employment in a social enterprise owned by Bridge House for one year, according to CEO Isabel McDevitt.
Because Bridge House acts as a landlord and employer, it can provide recommendations and referrals for its clients as they look for permanent housing and work upon graduation. It has a success rate of about 75 percent, McDevitt said, and about 65 percent of participants have a criminal background.
“We haven’t found that there’s been a difference” in the graduation rates between those with criminal backgrounds and those without, McDevitt said. “What we find is that it can just take longer. They can still graduate, but it might take double the amount of job interviews to get the job as opposed to someone who doesn’t have a criminal background.”
McDevitt says the low state unemployment rate is pushing employers to be more open-minded out of practicality, but the scarcity in the housing market is doing the opposite.
At the Boulder shelter, clients can access permanent supportive housing.
“We just housed nine people in our permanent supportive housing program over the last eight months,” said Greg Harms, executive director of the shelter. “Those nine people had over 1,200 jail stays prior.”
The shelter manages a facility with 71 apartments, as well as several apartments scattered across the community. It also works with landlords to find housing for clients.
“The thing that we can offer to landlords is, we provide the case management support to these clients,” Harms said. “They know that if there’s ever a problem, they have somebody they can call to resolve the issue.”
While those who receive permanent supportive housing are prioritized by need, the shelter also provides assistance to help clients find housing on their own. However, Harms said that case management services don’t follow those without permanent supportive housing once they leave the shelter.
About 75 percent of those who enter permanent supportive housing are still housed two years later, which is how Harms measures their success.
Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, email@example.com