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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2005

Toledo: UrbaneKnights helps ex-offenders

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bernard Williams doesn't hide his past life of crime or drug use, but proudly puts them in perspective - as part of his past that he's worked hard to overcome.

Mr. Williams said some in society are not as encouraging or supportive of ex-offenders like himself.

His experience with employers and agencies led him to start the UrbaneKnights, Inc. in January of 2004, a grass-roots organization designed to help ex-offenders with job placement, job creation services and transitional housing.

Mr. Williams, executive director of the organization, said those are some of the biggest reasons 35 percent of offenders in Ohio return to prison in the first three years.

"If you can't find a job and a place a stay, you don't have many options," Mr. Williams said.

"I'm an ex-offender. I earned my bachelor's degree in computer science but I was still discriminated against."

UrbaneKnights tries to provide case management, career and educational counseling along with survival and life skills for ex-offenders.

The help gives ex-offenders a better chance to re-start their lives instead of returning to prison, he said.

On Saturday, the UrbaneKnights will draw city and county officials together to discuss ways to better serve those returning to society from prison during its dinner at the Genesis Dreamplex Hotel and Conference Center, 2429 South Reynolds Road.

The UrbaneKnights Informative Collaboration Dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. and will include talks from social service organizations and public officials about the importance of coordinating services and making them easily available for ex-offenders.

"Our mandate from God is to assist ex-offenders, both men and women, in a holistic way, to build them body, mind and soul," Mr. Williams said.

"We will continue to mentor and coach these individuals and teach them survival skills so that they will continue to be solid citizens giving back to our community."

The UrbaneKnights recently joined with the community development corporations Organized Neighbors Yielding eXcellence and Neighborhoods in Partnership in winning a national grant from Local Initiatives Support Corp. to service ex-offenders.

The UrbaneKnights has two transitional houses on North Detroit Avenue and Sylvania Avenue that can hold 25 to 30 people each. He said he would like to raise $100,000 by Easter to keep his program moving.

"The ex-offender population has been a concern of ours for the past couple of years at ONYX," said Deborah Younger, its executive director. "UrbaneKnights has ex-offenders involved in the program. They have also been able to collaborate with churches and other groups so they have a broad base of support.

"Bernard Williams is extremely dedicated and bright. Ex-offenders couldn't ask for a better advocate than Bernard Williams."

Mr. Williams said the challenges for ex-offenders are numerous. In Ohio, the seventh largest prison population in the country, 40 percent of prisoners are released with no supervision or support, he said.

Of those being supervised, statistics show that in 2003 some 537 officers were assigned to keep account of 32,000 ex-offenders - that's one officer for every 60 ex-offenders.

Many need drug treatment and mental health services - care that is out of reach because they don't have the means to secure the health insurance to obtain the care, Mr. Williams said.

He said the UrbaneKnights will be able to guide ex-offenders to agencies providing services that could help overcome some of those hurdles. Mr. Williams said the transitional housing is designed to provide a place to stay until an ex-offender can get on his or her feet and get their own place.

He said he hopes through this organization, he can give back to the community as well.

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

chughes@theblade.com

or 419-724-6095.



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