March 22, 2021 |Eric Wuestewald | Community Development

Washing Away Unemployment in Formerly Incarcerated Populations

Recently, the amazing work of one of Resourceful Communities’ partners—Wash Away Unemployment (WAU)—was recognized by Chick-Fil-A’s True Inspiration Awards in the Regional/Atlantic category, receiving a $150,000 grant for transitional housing and revitalizing rural landscapes. While many might see reentry programs as being narrowly focused, WAU’s work highlights the unique ways a triple bottom line approach can manifest in rural communities:

  • Economic: Reentry is a holistic process, and WAU programs provide “wraparound services” that include transitional housing, transitional employment and meaningful work in social enterprises. WAU invests in human capital by providing pathways to economic mobility.
  • Social Justice: WAU has advocated for public policy that reduces employment barriers for individuals with criminal records. They also provide a desperately needed support network to meet the unrecognized housing needs of returning citizens, which have been exacerbated by the sudden release of incarcerated individuals during the pandemic. WAU further offers an exceptional model of how to serve with instead of for—program participants inform much of the strategic direction of WAU’s transitional housing work.
  • Environmental: When Hurricane Florence ravaged eastern North Carolina in 2018, WAU provided critical assistance to low-income households in removing debris, repairing homes impacted by the storm and creating new housing opportunities for those left homeless by the hurricane. Additionally, WAU is aiming to start a social enterprise kitchen that sources local food, serves nutritious meals and employs returning citizens.

We sat down to speak to Wash Away Unemployment’s Executive Director, Corey Purdie, and learn more about his inspiration and his work. Read on to learn more about how his work is helping to change lives.

3 22 21 1Photo by Corey Purdie.

What inspired you to start WAU?

Corey Purdie: I was inspired to start WAU after years of running a car wash business that hired individuals who may have had a blemish on their criminal record or faced hurdles in their life. After many years, I found out that people needed more than dead-end minimum wage jobs. They needed true growth in more than just one area in their life. We tried offering entrepreneurial opportunities, but realized that people still needed more areas of support.
In 2015, we started Wash Away Unemployment which combined a one-to-one mentor-based life course curriculum (Jobs for Life) with workforce development training. We also focused on transitional housing. Over the years, we found that the primary model of congregated housing wasn’t as healthy, especially with Covid now present. We became aware that we needed to move toward single dwelling housing and are now moving toward Small Home projects.
Our number one goal is family reunification and preservation. So many programs focus on just the individual, but no person is an individual, that person is actually people.

What’s your relationship with the Resourceful Communities program?

Corey: Resourceful Communites has been so integral in supporting our growth throughout the last few years! After initially attending one of their gatherings in western North Carolina back in 2015, Resourceful Communities has helped with capacity building, grant writing, website development, and most importantly, they have been a family of moral support through the many hurdles that we have been hit with through the years while serving our community. They have always smiled and treated us as we truly mattered to the world.

3 22 21 2Photo by Corey Purdie.

How would you describe the economic, environmental, and social justice benefits of your work? If you were to explain your work to someone who cares about the environment and natural resources, how would you make the connection?

Corey: The triple bottom line is so essential in every social movement, but especially for what we do.

We address economic disadvantages by investing in people that society deems as a burden and reintroducing them as entrepreneurs, staff members and contributions to the community. We responsibly utilize natural resources of repurposed wood and furnishings, grow vegetables for our Social Enterprise Kitchen, and plan to reduce housing footprints to an average of 500 sq ft. through our Small Home Project. We also advocate for and assist with individuals trying to reestablish their rights to live as human beings with equitable housing and employability.

You’ve been very forward thinking in your response to hurricane recovery. Tell us where that passion came from and what you’ve learned from that experience. 

Corey: Some of the individuals that participated in our hurricane cleanup initiative were individuals that would normally be unemployed after working for as low as 40 cents per day while incarcerated. Society has failed to see the work ethic of people who return from a life of blemishes. We saw it as an opportunity to reintroduce this work force to the community. After success in hurricane recovery work, we started advocating for the city to pass the “Ban the Box” initiative to remove criminal history questions from job applications for state employment.

3 22 21 3Photo by Corey Purdie.

What do you see as WAU’s biggest challenge and greatest opportunity?

Corey: Our biggest challenge is always capacity building. The work that we do has so many moving components. The dynamic and delivery of need is constantly changing. So many programs get stuck in their way of doing things that they fail to see that need has shifted.

It’s hard sometimes to keep traditional generations of volunteers because they may struggle to understand an innovative organization. This is why we lean towards social enterprise. It gives us the opportunity to get out of the begging arena and constantly adjusting our models to fit a grant. Instead, we’re able to remain who we are and attract those that allow us to remain self-sustainable.

What’s next for WAU?

Corey: Thanks to the collaboration with Resourceful Communities, we’re finishing the last couple of construction projects that we’ve been working on for so long. We’re also developing innovative strategies to help launch new ideas.

To learn more about WAU and their work with formerly incarcerated populations, click here to visit Wash Away Unemployment’s website.

Written by

Eric Wuestewald

At the time of publication, Eric Wuestewald was the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund.