Aug. 22, 2018
A typical day for the 27-year-old Lawson begins with a breakfast of jail grub and continues with community-service volunteer work loading boxes or landscaping.
And after the work, it’s back to the Honor Farm, back to the jail grub, back to the nine other men in Lawson’s program, and back to the so-called mattress, with lights out at 10:30 p.m.
But you won’t hear Lawson complain because it’s the life he has chosen, at least for now.
“Once you get around people that actually want to help you,” Lawson said, “you actually want to start to better yourself, too.”
Lawson is one of the first 10 participants in the inaugural cohort of homeless men enrolled in a residential job-training program run by Ready To Work, a Stockton-based nonprofit that was awarded $1.4 million in grant funding three months ago by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.
Ready To Work’s aim is to set the men up with housing, job training and, ultimately, paying jobs — all aimed at giving participants a better opportunity to succeed once they leave the program after a maximum of 15 months.
“The people who are here want to be here and they’re focused,” said Jon Mendelson, Ready To Work’s executive director.
Mendelson has based his program — which may reach its 45-man capacity within a month — on one in New York that assists men who are leaving homeless shelters or the criminal justice system.
According to data from New York, nearly 80 percent of its participants are employed six months after they have exited and taxpayers save $3.60 for every dollar spent on the program.
Ready To Work is providing its participants training, food and sleeping quarters. After the initial adjustment to the program, the men are dispatched as supervised work groups in the community.
They are paid salaries, and with housing and food taken care of, the men have an opportunity to build a nest egg by the time they exit the program for their own apartments and a chance to build a new, independent life.
Lawson, who has a high school diploma and some college credits, moved from North Carolina to California several years ago, joining his mother in Stockton.
Strained family relations eventually pushed him out of his mother’s door and into the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless, where he lived while working for short stints at Walmart and for an alarm company.
While at the shelter, Lawson said he eventually met someone who knew of a job traveling with California Carnival Company setting up and tearing down the rides as various fairs moved from one city to another.
But the backbreaking work and 16-hour days were not what Lawson wanted for the rest of his life, so he returned once more to Stockton, staying at the shelter and at the Gospel Center Rescue Mission. When Lawson learned what Ready To Work was doing, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I need a steady source of income and transportation so I can get my own home,” he said. “I think this is a good stepping stone and opportunity for a lot of people to basically come up in the world.”
Leading visitors Wednesday around the yard, which includes a pingpong table and a basketball court, Mendelson pointed to 12-foot perimeter fencing covered with slats and topped by barbed wire, and he said there have yet to be any security breaches. Additionally, Ready To Work Program Director Deborah Johnson just happens to be the retired warden of the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, so she knows a thing or two about security. Johnson said collaboration between Ready To Work and the Sheriff’s Office led to the enhanced fencing and the barbed wire that tops it.
“We also worked on trying to ensure that the movement between their inmates and our clients out of that area is limited,” Johnson said. “So when (inmates are) moving to and from their dining facility … our clients are pretty much inside.”
Lawson said that in his mind, the precautions are unnecessary. His plans, he said, do not include attempting to interact with inmates. He has loftier visions.
“My own apartment, own place to stay, transportation, of course, maybe a nice car,” he said. “This is some foundation, some place that I can establish myself and be on my own feet without having to ask anybody for anything. It’s basically for independence and freedom, you know?”