For paroled offenders, homeless teenagers and others helped by the nonprofit firm 180 Degrees, the coronavirus crisis has changed risks and needs.
Each year, 180 Degrees assists 200 former Minnesota offenders find training, housing and work within a few months of parole. It also provides emergency shelter and services for 1,000-plus homeless teens in the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Rochester.
Around the state, nonprofits took an estimated $1 billion hit in April as the COVID-19 virus and instant recession derailed spring fundraising and curtailed other revenue streams.
180 Degrees CEO Dan Pfarr and program director Richard Coffey in 2019 completed a multiyear financial turnaround of the once-ailing, 50-year-old social enterprise. They cut ancillary programs, collaborated with other agencies and accelerated private fundraising.
At Clifton Place, a halfway house operated by 180 Degrees near downtown Minneapolis, staff was buoyed in recent years by increasing numbers of ex-offenders who landed $15-an-hour jobs with a future, finding places to live and lower prison-recidivism rates. Employers were starting to view ex-offenders as a resource in an employee-hungry economy. Skills, a paycheck and new friends at work can be a powerful, positive purpose.
But the coronavirus crisis instantly pushed Minnesota’s unemployment to levels not seen since the early 1980s.
“Our job is to help these guys become productive citizens and to protect society,” said Coffey, a one-time Army paratrooper and Minnesota Gophers basketball great in the 1980s. “We work with these guys to become accountable. They are trying to get their lives together and earn respect. They have committed a crime and paid dearly.
“Before COVID, jobs weren’t the issue. It was housing. No one wants to rent to a felon. And you don’t want to rent from a slumlord … who may demand a couple of months rent and then claim you’re dealing drugs, which can be a parole violation and get you back in prison. Our guys have very little power.”
The pandemic has made things more complicated operationally and financially at 180 Degrees. One of its top priorities was to make sure that residents at Clifton Place stayed free of the virus.
“The danger of bringing COVID to a 36-bed congregate-living site was a huge risk,” said Pfarr, who himself had to quarantine at home after a family member was exposed to the virus elsewhere.
“Richard, Tony Hunter, the senior manager at Clifton, Layee Sanoe, our house manager, were central to critical adjustments,” Pfarr said. “We could have been forced to close our doors. But we adjusted.”
More of the support programs were done on site, which meant that the residents didn’t need to travel as much. When they did, 180 Degrees started using vans so the residents could reduce their use of public transportation, where the exposure risk is perceived to be higher.
“We gave each full-time employee a $4 per hour pay increase as they took on additional risk, as well as additional costs for cleaning supplies, masks,” Pfarr said. The nonprofit was helped by additional funding from the state Department of Corrections.
180 Degrees secured grants from several counties that it serves, about $150,000 in donations and also received a $680,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. Also, the Department of Corrections “stepped up with a $15 per day per diem increase” to about $75, Pfarr said. That’s still only about half of what it costs to keep an inmate in prison.
Pfarr said he anticipates there is more hard work ahead for the organization to continue providing services while the pandemic threat remains.
“This is not going away until we have comprehensive vaccination, testing and contract-tracing at the local level,” Pfarr said. “We are planning our [fiscal] 2021 budget that starts in July. And we have a waiting list of 40 guys being released from prison. We must connect them with employment and housing before they leave us.”
So far, nobody at Clifton Place has contracted the virus.
“I’ve been here for about a month and I just finished [online] forklift certification and I’m looking for work in manufacturing,” said Kurt Mahoney, a Clifton resident. “The biggest change for me is doing so much more online and being restricted in terms of job searching. There are warehouse and grocery-store jobs.
“I want a job that pays enough to cover rent and my other basic needs; $15 an hour or more. You’ve got to be optimistic and you’re doomed for disaster. It’s all supposed to happen within two to three months.”
Coffey’s Clifton Place crew has delivered over long hours, including trying to lift spirits during COVID times. The life skills, substance abuse and self-empowerment work continues.
“We’ve got five full-time staff and three part-timers,” Coffey said. “We need to double that, but it’s not in the budget. There are not many Tonys or Layees out there. I can’t have them burn out.
“Our clients … have paid the price. It’s good for society if we can find them proper housing and good jobs.”