Ex-offender faced homelessness until ministry lent help

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Doug Evans, a case manager with the Release to Rent for Veterans Program, introduced program participant Robert Marshall to Anthony D'Agostino, and they shook hands.

D'Agostino took over earlier in July as the executive director of the Criminal Justice Ministry after Sister Carleen Reck's 17 years of leading the agency. The ministry, affiliated with the archdiocese and a recipient of funds from the Annual Catholic Appeal, is known for its success in reintegrating released inmates into society, especially through its housing programs that are combined with supportive case management.

D'Agostino mostly observed as Evans walked through Marshall's apartment to see if anything was out of order and to see if Marshall had any needs. Evans tested the smoke detector and asked Marshall if he was making his medical appointments. Marshall told the case manager that he hadn't had any problems with his car since the first day on his job. It wouldn't start and he had to get a jump and a new battery. He also assured Evans that he's keeping up to date on his car insurance and other requirements so he doesn't get a citation.

Marshall, who served in the U.S. Marines, has been in the program for six months and is thrilled at how it has helped him get on his feet. Without the help, he said, he would have been homeless.

After leaving the Marines, Marshall ended up in prison for eight and a half years. He spent six months at Dismas House, a group home for men leaving prison, but was about to leave when someone at the U.S. Veterans Administration told him about the Criminal Justice Ministry.

"I needed a base, and without that base I couldn't move forward," said Evans, who quickly got a job and has since found a better position in data entry. "I've been very fortunate that they helped me out."

Evans praised Marshall for being motivated and interested in improving himself. "We meet guys where they are and, typically when they have a few accomplishments, their self-esteem seems to grow," Evans said. "All of a sudden they're doing things they didn't think they could do."

Marshall soon will transition to another apartment on his own. His security deposit, provided by the program, will apply to that place as well. He plans to buy new furniture and leave what he's using to the next program participant. "I appreciate that it was here when I came," he said.

The program screens applicants but does take in some men other programs disqualify for reasons such as not having an honorable discharge from the military. They take clients to the apartment, then take them shopping. "We've had guys who've done 40, 45 years, and the prison just drops them off," Evans said. "Unless someone comes to their aid, life is very hard."

Evans helps the men through barriers that cause hardships and sometimes results in homelessness. He was a participant in the Release to Rent program, completing it in January 2011.

"It's a big deal for me to give back what was given to me," he said. "And I tell the guys, if I can do it, you can, too."

D'Agostino said the Criminal Justice Ministry helps the men integrate into society. "We sometimes lose the sense of human dignity of people. We try, as it says in our mission statement, to serve and not judge. It's not based on what we feel they deserve."

The work is Christ-centered, based on love, compassion and forgiveness. "You help people with their needs, and it has ripple effects throughout the community," D'Agostino said.

Criminal Justice Ministry staff and volunteers serve incarcerated people in four prisons and 10 jails. They provide basic necessities when inmates are released and long-term help through two housing programs. 

Sister Carleen Reck, SSND

Sister Carleen Reck, SSND, who directed the Criminal Justice Ministry for 17 years and retired last month, made things happen for the program and its clients.

She began with a modest budget and grew it to $1.4 million with grants.

Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former state representative who now is executive director of Empower Missouri, tells of legislators at attention when Sister Carleen visited the state capitol and responding to her requests.

Father John Vogler, longtime chaplain of the ministry, said Sister Carleen got things done with "a kind firmness" and "a heart and a passion for the people we serve and the staff."

George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, cited her persistence and compassion. He said that by helping people get on their feet after they leave prison, she prevented countless people from becoming crime victims. "Because of the lives she touched, she has made the community a little bit safer," Lombardi said.

Sister Carleen said the ministry offers hope, a second chance and education to help people use their potential. "One of the greatest calls is to not waste human lives," she said. "The Criminal Justice Ministry is a leader in recycling lives."

For information about the ministry, visit www.cjmstlouis.org. The ministry is hosting a trivia night at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, at St. James the Greater Gym, 1360 Tamm Ave. For information, contact Christine at (314) 881-3090 or christis@cjmstlouis.org. 

Criminal Justice Ministry
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