An inmate at Soledad State Prison for 22 years, and a decade before at other California prisons, Kevin Kristiansen had given up hope of ever getting out.
After all, he was a “lifer” with no place to go. And that’s what the parole board really wanted to know: “What are you going to do if you’re released? Where are you going to stay if we release you?”
He didn’t have much of an answer, until he heard about a nun in Los Angeles who ran transitional homes for inmates like him in Los Angeles. So when he went before the parole board one more time, he had a letter from Sister Teresa Groth, the director of Francisco Homes, stating there would be room for him in one of the homes.
And that changed everything.
Kristiansen was released on April 27, 2017, and by the next day was living at one of the homes. Still, plenty of formidable challenges awaited him.
“I never really had a lot of hope of getting out because you needed a place to go,” the 64-year-old told Angelus News in a recent interview. Having been “away from the world for over 30 years,” the 64-year-old felt afraid.
“You know, would I be accepted? Would I have a place to stay? Would I be feared by people because of my past?
But from the moment he first walked into the program’s office, those fears began to subside.
“Other than the staff working there, there were four other people,” remembered Kristiansen. “Three of them I knew from doing time inside and were friends I hadn’t seen in years. And it was like coming home to a family. They welcomed me so much and told me if there was anything that I needed, just ask.
“Honest to God, that’s really what we need coming out,” he explained. “A real welcoming. And they did that for me. They didn’t judge. They said, ‘We have a place for you here,’ and I was escorted over there and shown where I would sleep.”
Staff provided what he needed to get back on “the path to reintegration into the world,” as Kristiansen called it, helping him get in touch with the Social Security Administration, the DMV, and other social services.
He stayed at Francisco Homes for 18 months. He got a job at the Staples Center as an usher and ticket taker, working everywhere from guest services to staffing the VIP box seats. Today, he also coaches new hires on how to do the job.
At Francisco Homes, he was in the program’s family relations group. But it was the creative writing group, run by four University of Southern California English professors, that really connected with him.
“It became the most self-healing group I’ve ever participated in,” he pointed out. “Inside the walls of prison we’re taught from the beginning to suppress our feelings and our emotions, lest they turn hot and lead to some violence.”
By expressing himself through writing, he found a way to ease the pain of decades away from family — and freedom.
“They encouraged us to put our feelings and everything down on paper, and then bring those writings to the group. So we wrote about things that we were going through or that we had gone through, and how we deal with them and helping each other. It was a great group.”
With all the hurdles long-serving lifers face coming out of prison and reintegrating back into society, Groth considers Kristiansen a determined and fortunate person.
First of all, a lifer coming to Francisco Homes has to regain his identity in the outside world. Many, after serving 20, 30, or 40 years in prison, have no current ID, or don’t even have the correct name on their birth certificates (especially those with absent fathers). A mother’s last name may be recorded on the certificate, while their Social Security records have a different name.
Finding a steady job is hard, too, because most former lifers are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and not always able to work certain physical work. Many have chronic health problems that weren’t taken care of in prison, so higher-paying jobs (such as in construction) are simply out of the question. Often, their only options are in low-paying labor like dishwashing or maintenance work.
And then there’s the stigma of simply being an ex-con.
Finding affordable housing to move into after Francisco Homes is difficult, too. Some residents decide to share an apartment. Others may just rent a room somewhere.
Reconnecting with their biological family can also be problematic for former lifers. Many have been in prison so long they’ve lost any connection with family members. Parents, who usually hold a family together, have often died, and siblings can be very harsh in judging the “black sheep” of their families.
“It boils down to reconnecting to the community for our residents,” said Groth. “And that’s one of the reasons we have our residents stay with us not the six months that are required by the state, but as long as they need it. So some guys have stayed here as many as five years. But the average is a year and a half.”
In one positive development for lifers, both the City and County of Los Angeles, as well as most recently the State of California, no longer list a box asking about past felonies or prison time in job applications (employers can still inquire about this after the person has been hired, in the event of a connection between the offense and the job).
James believes he has been reconnected to society. A year after coming to Francisco Homes three years ago, he had gotten a job at a local sports venue, learned how to get around LA on bus, and persevered for eight weeks just to get his birth certificate.
But just as he was getting ready to move out on his own last February, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After completing seven weeks of radiation therapy, he was hoping to go back to work soon, so he can start saving money again and really move out this time.
But Groth told him there was no hurry.
With additional health problems besides the cancer, the 77-year-old was hesitant about going back to work, but said it has “worked out OK.”
James said living at Francisco Homes after 33 years in prison has been “fantastic,” and a great help ever since he left prison in Vacaville.
The program has helped him get to wherever he needed to be and couldn’t get there by himself. Staff members have helped him navigate the different bureaucracies and medical issues he’s had even before his prostate cancer. And they gave him hope that he could really have a new life.
But it was a trauma support group that helped him deal with an unresolved part of his past that he believes was the seed of his violent behavior that sent him to prison.
“I went to that and that helped me deal with some of the trauma from my childhood, because things weren’t always smooth at home growing up,” he pointed out with a chuckle.
“Dad was a real strict disciplinarian. I’d get cuffed the side of the head by my dad, and I kind of resented that. So different things here at Francisco Homes helped in relationships and understanding where I had been and why I had the feelings that I have and was acting accordingly to them.”
When forgiveness hits
James’ experience is not an uncommon one for the lifers who pass through Francisco Homes, according to Groth. And she believes forgiveness has a lot to do with residents opening up instead of locking down their feelings, as they did for self-preservation in prison.
“Forgiveness really hits me,” she told Angelus News. “The distinguishing thing about forgiveness here is the freely given mercy and to not bring to our program what they were convicted for.
“But forgiveness doesn’t mean that you are condoning the past action. It just means ‘I will stop punishing you. I will let go and recognize that there is someone much bigger who really is the one who judges. I’m not the judge.’ So we let go of judgment.
“Many felons wonder if they’ll be accepted and not judged,” she said. “So it’s a beautiful opportunity for people and parishes to show precisely that merciful forgiveness that is extended to us as individuals.”
For several years, “all-house” monthly meetings for Francisco Home residents have been held at two local parishes, St. Cecilia Church in South LA and Christ the King Church near Hollywood. At St. Cecilia, some of the men have become extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and catechists, while at Christ the King they’ve joined confirmation classes and other activities.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Los Angeles has been generous in meeting the basic needs of former-residents, including clothing as well as furniture, food, and other items when they leave Francisco Homes and move into their own places. Each individual receives an unconditional $50 voucher as many times as they need it to live independently.
A counselor from Loyola Marymount University is available for residents to visit, and Ignatian volunteers from the school get them up to speed on tech literacy, basic life skills like cooking, and how to get around LA on public transportation.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the program is helping residents find affordable places to live after Francisco Homes in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets.
“ ‘Affordable’ means they have to be either very lucky and find some sort of subsidized housing, or they have to have some sort of shared housing, where they rent a bedroom or bed.”
“That’s very difficult in Los Angeles, and sometimes they have to move away from here,” she acknowledged. “But our goal is to get them at least to become regular citizens with the same challenges the rest of the people have. But, of course, they have the challenge that they have a huge unemployment gap and no references.
“So that’s at least what we can provide. We become their references to landlords or employers. We can speak about their character.”
And in doing that, Groth says, “we become their family.”
But for Kristiansen, Groth is more than family.
“I think she is just an angel sent from God,” Kristiansen said. “I mean, she doesn’t refuse anybody. She never says no to anybody who needs anything she can do. She has a wealth of knowledge about who we are, what we need. She just — and the whole program — helps everybody.”
R.W. Dellinger is the features editor of Angelus.
Practical help and hope
Sister Mary Sean Hodges established what would become Francisco Homes in 2008. After she left to concentrate on PREP (Partnership for Re-Entry Program offering inmates pre-release self-help correspondence courses), Sister Teresa Groth became executive director of Francisco Homes in 2012.
Today there are seven homes providing transitional living for 80 men entering society after serving long sentences in California state prisons. The bedrock component of the program is the Christian principle of forgiveness.
Caseworkers design an individual program for each resident. It can include group workshops in Alcoholics Anonymous, spiritual reflection and growth, life skills, finances and budgeting, and job readiness. Specialized educational and vocational programs are also available.
When they can, residents pay $500 a month for these programs and housing. The average stay at the homes is 18 months, but some residents remain longer until they’re ready to leave. For those who find permanent housing, Francisco Homes continues to provide a safety net of emotional and spiritual support.
For more information, visit thefranciscohomes.org or call 323-293-1111.
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