By CSG Justice Center Staff
Ronald Forbes (left) sees great new things happening—and most of them are in his kitchen.
A 55-year-old U.S. Army veteran, Forbes is on the brink of expanding his Oakland, California-based catering company in partnership with his sister, Catherine. Soon, he’ll move the business to a commercial space, but for now he’s practicing his recipes for barbecue chicken, ribs, and his mom’s potato salad at home.
Forbes said he would not be in a position to take this next step in his business without the help of Operation My Home Town (OMHT), a reentry program run by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which serves the city of Oakland and much of the eastern San Francisco Bay Area. With Second Chance Act funding, OMHT has focused on strengthening collaboration among public service agencies, community-based organizations, and faith-based groups in the Alameda County region to provide a comprehensive array of services to address the complex needs of people who are in or have recently been released from county jail.
OMHT provided those critical connections for Forbes when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), homelessness, and a substance use disorder brought him into contact with the justice system.
Forbes’s passion for cooking began decades ago while he was serving in the U.S. Army. After he was deployed to Korea in 1985 at age 23, Forbes quickly moved into food service, cooking daily meals for his fellow soldiers who were stationed in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Though Forbes did not personally see active combat, there were a number of violent confrontations in the DMZ during his time there, and he found it difficult to transition back to civilian life when he returned to the U.S. in 1988.
It was only upon his return to the U.S.—where he lacked stable housing, had to move in with his parents, and eventually turned to drinking and substance use—that he began to think of his tour of duty as traumatic.
“It felt like a nightmare,” he said. “You do things to try and get control of the nightmare, but they don’t work.”
Forbes said that his addictions and then-undiagnosed PTSD made his work life erratic and led him to find illegal ways to make money.
In 2014, Forbes—who had become estranged from his family and was homeless—was arrested for receiving stolen property. At his sentencing, the judge required that, after jail, he transfer to a residential substance use recovery program in Berkeley, California, called Options. But apart from addiction, Forbes faced challenges familiar to many people preparing to reenter their communities after incarceration: a lack of work, a lack of money, and no means of transportation.
The organization that connected the dots was OMHT, whose case managers meet with people while they are still incarcerated to help plan for their needs and goals upon release.
While in Santa Rita Jail for five-and-a-half months, Forbes met one of the OMHT case managers, Ellen Davis, who explained that the program was designed to help people like him avoid common hurdles as they transition from jail to the community. When it was time for him to transfer from the jail to the Options program, Davis helped Forbes secure a bus ticket to Berkeley. She also helped Forbes with his application for an apartment through county housing services and wrote letters to sponsor his attendance at Santa Rita job fairs. He remembers Davis cautioning him that people often hastily speed through their reentry.
That proved a useful warning. After his release from jail, Forbes said he became busy in a restaurant venture and did not keep up with his mental health treatment. He was rearrested on July 4, 2015, for the same offense.
“Miss Davis gave me the advice to ‘go slowly,’ and I had not,” Forbes said. “But she told me: ‘A relapse is not a failure—it’s one step closer to success.’”
This second sentence was later dismissed, and Forbes was determined to make a change in his life. He agreed to Davis’s offer of continued therapy at OMHT.
This time around, Forbes said, he felt committed to that process, which involved a mental health assessment, counseling, and ongoing adjustments to his medication.
To date, Forbes has not reoffended in more than two years. And he’s not alone. According to an evaluation that tracked outcomes of OHMT participants between 2011 and 2014, 78 percent of participants who had been released from jail at least two years prior had no record of recidivating after two years.
Forbes credits OMHT with connecting him to the small-business support that helped him get his catering business off the ground. He has even launched a local community nonprofit to support veterans, including those leaving prison or jail.
“Once I came to Operation My Home Town, they wouldn’t give up on me, and it shows,” Forbes said. “I made a change, I’m doing what I want to do with my life, and I’m not going back.”