Reentry cash assistance gives Bella stability in changing world

Jan 10, 2023   |  By Emily Montgomery

When Bella grew up in Los Angeles, there were payphones everywhere. Then, returning to the city in 2018 after being incarcerated for twelve years, she said it was like she had “stepped into a different world.”

“I got lost in my own city because everything has changed after so long of being away,” Bella said. “My mom was like, give me a call when you get there. How am I supposed to call you? I don't have a cell phone.”

“I had to take a minute and take it all in,” she added. “I had to adapt so quickly being back out in the world and getting used to society and how fast-paced society was moving.”

Not only had the world changed–Bella had changed too. She transitioned from male to female while in prison, which added to the challenge of navigating the outside world and securing a safe place to live.

“They don't have inclusive housing when it comes to the LGBT community. You're thrown out to the streets,” Bella said.

When individuals are released from prison in California, they are only given $200–barely enough to cover a meal and a bus or train ticket, let alone a cell phone or an apartment.

Fortunately, a friend told Bella about the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which assisted her in finding employment. Bella said that CEO helped her form a plan and provided resources and support as she pursued her goals. Just as crucially, it provided an inclusive and welcoming space. “It’s all about acceptance,” she said.

“Then COVID hit during the process of me being out. So it made it even twice as hard,” Bella said.

But in April 2020, CEO launched the Returning Citizen Stimulus (RCS) program in response to COVID-19. CEO distributed more than $24 million in cash assistance to more than 10,000 people returning from incarceration to their families and communities–including Bella.

“It was a shock to me because I'm not used to having somebody just tell you here–here's some money to help you out,” Bella said. “So the stipend alone–I was grateful for it.”

She used the funds to help cover big costs, including paying rent, purchasing a car, having surgery, and planning her wedding.. She was also able to put some of the money to assist her mother.

“It was a vast help,” Bella said, noting that the stipend provided stability in an otherwise unpredictable period. “You didn't know what was going on or, especially in this crazy time, where your next paycheck was or how it was going to come.”

Having that stability allowed Bella to find a job she was excited about–as a cook at Flower Child, a popular Santa Monica eatery. “I see people every day that enjoyed the food we make,” she said.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do,” Bella added. “Something I look forward to every day.”