Our building boom helps ex-cons find work, shelter and brotherhood | KUOW News and Information

Our building boom helps ex-cons find work, shelter and brotherhood

Feb 21, 2018

The Seattle area needs more housing.

There’s not enough construction workers to build all the houses we need.

Meanwhile, ex-prisoners have a hard time finding work and a place to live.

One woman and her company found a way to tackle all these problems at the same time.

Amy King just wanted to build more houses. She owns a construction company called Square Peg with her husband. They put out ads everywhere for laborers.

“We literally got nothing. Crickets. We could not find anyone to come work for us," said King.

Meanwhile, jails and prisons release people all the time who are looking for work. Employers tend to reject them. So do landlords.

But King’s company took a chance on six men like that. She’s never regretted it.

"As we set expectations for them, they meet and then exceed them every time,” she said.

King wanted to keep her hard working ex-con employees. But as she listened to them, she realized they needed stable housing, too.

One day, King was talking to a client. He was complaining about squatters who had occupied one of his houses, while he waited on the permit to demolish it.

“I said, ‘Hey, I have a crazy idea. You want us to get the squatters out of our house. I’ve got three guys who are basically homeless. How about if my guys live in your house until the permit pops and everybody wins. The house is occupied, you don’t have to worry about squatters,'” she said.

From left, Ben Betsch, Paul Diemert, James Kennemer, and Zack Larson gather for a house meeting on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, on 12th Ave. South, in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

That’s how Square Peg Development found its mission. It would provide jobs and housing for ex-prisoners. They work with counselors and with prison release programs. 

Zack Larson found out about Square Peg in jail. He jumped at the chance.

“I know how to work," Larson said. "I worked all my life pretty much until 2009, when I kind of went off the deep end, you know."

That’s when an addiction got him into trouble.

When ex-cons can’t find a job or a place to stay, they often return to criminal activity. Over three-quarters of released prisoners in this country get arrested again within five years. In contrast, Square Peg said only 4 percent of the people in its program have gotten in trouble again.

Zack Larson lights a cigarette on the porch of the donated home where he lives on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, on 12th Ave South in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Square Peg Development has now grown to about 60 employees. Not all of them are former prisoners, some have struggled with addiction or homelessness. The employees live two to a room in temporary homes found by King.

Larson said it’s helped him.

“The consistency is probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed in my life. I mean, I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to sleep tonight. I’ve got some pretty solid dudes around me that know who I am, and knowing that it’s okay to get real.” 

I visited Larson’s house just south of the old Pac Med building on Beacon Hill.  They’ve since moved on to another house King lined up for them.

Zack Larson and James Kennemer, right, cook dinner together on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, at the donated home on 12th Ave South in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

When I visited, the guys were cooking dinner, talking about how bad food was in prison. They used to cope by making group meals in their cells at night. Everybody would throw in something they bought at the commissary. 

"I got cheese. I got the soups," the other prisoners would call out, recalled James Kennemer. "Who’s got the beans? I got beef sticks. No fish." 

They’d mash those ingredients all up in a tortilla chip bag, add hot water from a hot pot and scoop it up in tortillas. Prison tacos, or more generically, "spread."

“Spread. Yeah, spread. Every night, it was 'Who’s laying up the spread?'”

I told Larson he almost sounded nostalgic as he described those DIY prison meals. 

“Well, because that’s about the only thing that gets you out of where you’re in," Larson said. "That’s the moments of getting to know other guys on a more deeper level than just the surface of 'I’m a tough guy, I’m a criminal,' you know?”

From left, Jason Alexander, James Kennemer, Zack Larson and Ben Betsch laugh while eating dinner together on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, at the donated home on 12th Ave. South in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Larson said in prison, those moments of community were rare. Kennemer said here in the house, those moments happen a lot.

"It’s like a little family. We’ll make food, eat together, watch some movies," Kennemer said.

They’ve got a lot of movies to catch up on. After dinner, the guys veg out in front of "Memoirs of a Geisha," a movie about a person whose value isn't understood by the world around her.

As I interview the men, their attention drifts to the screen, where the narrator seems to be coming to an epiphany: This tribulation, she said, could just be a stepping stone to something new. The guys seem to be drinking it in.

Or maybe they're just getting sleepy. It's 8:30 p.m. and work starts early the next morning.

From left, Anthony Banks, Devin Ottesen, Zack Larson and Chris Chase work on a job site on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, on 38th Ave East in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer