How A House Near Cal State Fullerton Is Changing The Lives Of Former Prisoners

Cal State Fullerton student Matthew Vasquez (center) shows off an Assembly recognition given to Project Rebound by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (right). (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

There's a two-story house in the hills four miles west of Cal State Fullerton. It's changing lives.

"I've been living here for three weeks," said Steven Green.

He's taking two classes for his business administration major. He moved in right after he was released from prison.

"I served 27 years and 8 months for a murder-robbery," he said.

The transition from a desert prison to living on a quiet, tree-shaded street in an upper middle-class neighborhood is extraordinary, he said. Green is one of six students who live in the Irwin House, which is run by the campus's Project Rebound program. Cal State Fullerton officials say this off-campus housing for formerly incarcerated students is the only one of its kind in the nation.

The house is named after Professor John Irwin, who served time for armed robbery in the 1950's and went on to found the first Project Rebound at San Francisco State University in 1967.

Cal State Fullerton student Daniel Bernal. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

On Thursday, Cal State Fullerton's Project Rebound celebrated the first anniversary of the opening of Irwin House. Seven Cal State campuses began their own Project Rebounds three years ago and more are in the works, helped by new state funding this year. The Fullerton program helps about 50 students buy books, and pay for transportation, food, and rent.

"When we get letters from incarcerated students they're asking for housing," says Project Rebound program director Romarilyn Ralston.

Finding affordable housing is a challenge for most college students in California but the difficulty formerly incarcerated students face makes it even harder for them to find stable housing while trying to earn their degrees. Project Rebound officials say landlords often applicants with criminal records.

"I came from a broken family home, no father, my mother was absent and on drugs so I turned to the streets," said psychology major Daniel Bernal. He served 18 years for gang-related offenses, as he puts it.

Except for a niece he had never met, Bernal said he had no family he could call on for help when he was released two and a half years ago. That niece let him stay at her apartment in Covina but not long after that, told him he had to leave.

"The landlord found out, me being a convicted felon and being on parole," and the landlord threatened to evict his niece, Bernal said.

He looked online for apartments to rent and heard several similar answers when he told landlords of his criminal record.

"I'm sorry, but we can't have you here," Bernal said landlords told him.

Steven Green (left) and Matthew Vasquez are residents of Project Rebound's house in Fullerton. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Bernal doesn't live in the Project Rebound home but like many other students participating in the program, he stops by often to use the computers on the first floor, attend backyard barbecues, and take part in peer-led discussions in which students reveal some of their deep challenges.

Advocates who challenge the detrimental effects of mass incarceration on individuals and communities have pushed for more colleges to create support programs like these.

"The California public higher education system has reached formerly incarcerated students in a way that we couldn't even have expected five years ago," said Rebecca Silbert, director of Corrections to College California.

The organization has compiled a list of California colleges with support programs for the formerly incarcerated. You can find it here.

"It's been a combination of student advocacy and students standing up and really arguing that they deserve to have access to California's higher education like everyone else," Silbert said, "and faculty and staff throughout California's public higher education system saying these are students we want to serve, it's part of our mission and we want to do this."

Only males are allowed to live in the Irwin House. They make up about two thirds of the Program's students. Cal State Fullerton's Project Rebound said it's working to create a similar housing program for female students who are formerly incarcerated.