I am thinking that if anyone should be scared here, it’s me. I’m sitting in a room at the Lazy C with Danny**, recently released from prison. Diane had already met him, but this was my first encounter.I learned this–at 42, he’d been in prison nearly continuously since 18, including stretches in solitary.  He didn’t share his crimes, but given years served and solitary, I expect it involved violence. Some ex-cons try to scare me. One big dude looked in my eyes, doing this weird thing where he made his eyes repeatedly bigger and smaller, staring daggers, trying to scare me. Given his 15 years on death row, it was convincing!

Danny didn’t look scary. He was small, even shy, but who knows? A gun, knife, drugs, or a psychotic break and I could quickly be in trouble. When first here a police friend insisted I carry a weapon. I have chosen not to, but in this moment I questioned my wisdom. Surprisingly, Danny brought up fear.  He quietly looked at me and said, “The truth is I’m scared.” He was a hardened criminal; why would he be scared? I asked what he was scared of and he said, “I’m scared to go do my laundry.” Say what? He explained: In prison, laundry was done for him and he had no idea how to do it.  More, he was fearful of being out, having to walk Colfax to the laundromat. His new freedom of movement and the time he had on his hands terrified him. His entire life had been controlled, with few choices and little responsibility. That gone, fear seized him.

Danny was institutionalized. Twenty-four years inside turned the outside into a fearful, overwhelming place. Think of something as common as smart phones. When he went in, all that existed were the early, humongous versions of cell phones. Now, he has a smart phone in his hand with more computing power than existed 24 years ago.But there are larger things. Every previous release, he knew he would reoffend and return. This time, he was determined to stay out–at 42 he had good years ahead of him. But the odds are overwhelmingly against him.Like most ex-cons we see, Danny had no family or friends to return to. Most get a motel voucher from the state for a few weeks. When that’s gone, they need to have a job and permanent housing. Absent that, they land on the street, fully homeless.

Be Danny for a bit. You sit in this motel room, scared to go outside; you have no family or friends to call for help. Your record means people are reluctant to hire you; even with a job, most landlords won’t rent to ex-cons. And, the obstacles multiply if you’re a sex-offender.Sitting on the edge of a motel bed, the clock ticks on your voucher and fear mounts. Even wanting to change, the odds overwhelm. Legal substances–alcohol and pot–are easy to turn to. Illegal ones–crack, meth, heroin, cocaine, speed–are available a few doors away. All take the edge off your fear.  The path to addictions and the street is well-greased. Frankly, many reoffend because prison seems preferable to the street.

If you are Danny, what do you need? A friend who did twenty-four years and now ministers to ex-cons surprised me with her answer. She didn’t start with Jesus. She said the ‘Dannys’ of the world need a job and secure, affordable housing. Without that, Jesus or no Jesus, they have almost no chance. But, vibrant with passion, she said that with work and housing in place, a deep reliance on Jesus would bring radical, Godly change. 

Note this: Colorado releases 750 prisoners a month. 500 return to family and friends; 250 have no-one and are essentially homeless the moment they walk out. Many show up in our motels. Week after week I walk away frustrated that I don’t have more to offer them. I know how to help them commit to Jesus; cracking the work and housing nut is infinitely harder.What would Jesus have us do? Danny is blessed; he got a spot with my friend’s ministry. With work and lodging, he is learning about Jesus and building a stable life. Most do not have those options. What would Jesus have us do for them?Pray for the endless string of Dannys we meet. Pray for work and housing that gives them a chance to stay out. Pray for us as we serve and share Jesus with this desperate population.

**Name changed to protect identity.