YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — A local organization is working to provide more housing options for those who have been incarcerated, citing the challenges those individuals face in their search for homes.

“We had a lot of clients who came in who were homeless or needing homes,” said Dionne Dowdy-Lacey, executive director of United Returning Citizens.

The organization provides housing placement assistance, career opportunities and mentorship to those who have been recently released from incarceration.

Dowdy-Lacey said there are barriers during their search for housing, such as having previous evictions on their record or landlords who are hesitant to give them a chance.

“A lot of people just do not want to either rent or allow our returning citizens to be in their homes. And you know, some things that I could understand, but everyone needs a second chance,” she said. “Not everyone that made a mistake is still in that mindset, is still doing those same things. Some people are rehabilitated; some people are different now, and they want to have a chance, and everyone should have a chance to have a home — to be stable, to be in a healthy environment, so that you can grow, you can support your family so that you can just be a better tax-paying citizen.”

In addition, they may find that living in a house or an apartment comes with additional challenges.

“So just someone coming from prison and being in a cell to come into a home that’s a little smaller, that’s manageable, that the rent is not so high in costs, it would give them more confidence, just not in the living space but just, you know, just having to be stable as a whole,” she said. “Because we come to see, if they’re not stable, that’s when they come to recidivism, you know, going back to jail.”

Dowdy-Lacey visited Detroit and saw a similar program there. Cass Community Social Services built a community of 25 tiny homes for the formerly homeless, incarcerated and those who have aged out of the foster care system or are senior citizens. All of the residents qualify due to low income and at first, rent their homes for a year. Anyone who remains in the program for seven years will be given the opportunity to own the home.

Rev. Faith Fowler said the first group who moved into their tiny homes will officially become homeowners next year.

“I see that as a great milestone,” Fowler said.

Fowler said tiny homes are not for everyone, but they’re more affordable. Because private dollars were used to build them, it eliminated the mortgage for the residents. Residents pay $1 a square foot — the smallest home is 225 square feet and the largest one is a little over 400 square feet. Rent stays at that rate, Fowler said.

The rent money is used for grass cutting, snow shoveling, and other maintenance, repairs and insurance.

The homes are also built with solar panels to save on electricity costs.

Fowler cautions that if an agency is looking to start a similar program, it should start slowly.

“Put a lot of thought into the design of the houses and program you want to run, because once you get started, your energy is zapped in property management and building,” she said. “We wanted, initially, to build all 25 at once. I’m glad we didn’t because there’s a great learning curve as you’re handling a construction project and then as you’re tending to residents and their needs.”

United Returning Citizens is currently working to obtain $1.2 million to build six tiny homes in Youngstown. The plan would be to create a community hub in the center, and each home would have a garden and access to storage space.

Dowdy-Lacey said vacant property owned by the county’s land bank could be used for the project. She said it’s worth giving the program a shot.

“We should support this; we need tiny homes here… We have houses that are torn down every year, like hundreds of houses, and so where are those people living? At least here, we can give them a small start… Let’s start small and see where it goes.”

Dowdy-Lacey said she is going down to Columbus next month for a meeting with local lawmakers. She plans to discuss the proposal and look for potential funding sources.

The organization also has a gala to raise money planned on Oct. 6 at Stambaugh Auditorium. “An Evening in Casablanca” features keynote speaker Jay Williams, president and CEO of the Hartford Foundation and the former mayor of Youngstown.

Tickets for the event are available for purchase on United Returning Citizens’ website, at its location on Belmont Avenue in Youngstown, or at Fancey Boutique, located at 5021 Market Street.

This is part of a series of stories that WKBN is looking into involving local housing issues in the Valley. Do you have a housing issue that you’d like us to look into? Send us your information here.