Rose's Good Company
She runs her own program for ex-cons
Community activist Rose Martin is leading a grassroots effort to help ex-prisoners that in many ways parallels Mary King's. But while King is a paid contractor of a statewide program and must follow certain guidelines, Martin is an unpaid, one-woman army who follows no rules but her own.
The charismatic retired founder of Peace Neighborhood Center now heads an organization called "Rose's Good Company." It has no address and no listed phone number. But through word-of-mouth, ex-cons find her and line up for help.
A couple of years ago, Martin worked briefly for King at MPRI. She says she quit in disgust after four months because the organization balked at providing her clients with three things she viewed as essentials: bus passes, phone cards, and cigarettes.
The program now provides bus passes and sometimes gives out phone cards as gifts. But cigarettes? "Ex-cons don't want to talk to you if they don't have cigarettes," Martin snaps. "You have to give them what they want, not what you want."
Martin calls King "very smart" and says, "I know she has the welfare of people" at heart. But she believes she can accomplish more outside of bureaucracy-in part by enlisting the help of established ex-cons who relate better to newly released prisoners than "officials."
Martin once had an office but says, "I had to choose whether to pay rent or to feed people. I choose to feed people." She meets her clients wherever is convenient for them-at the Peace Center, the library, or the bus station.
She may pile a few homeless guys in a truck and drive them around to stores and factories to fill out applications. She calls restaurant or store owners she knows and asks if they're hiring. She hits up well-off admirers for donations; one recently gave her $500, which she used to take a gang of unem-ployed ex-cons out to Holiday's restaurant. Some had been "eating out of garbage cans," she says. "They ordered pancakes . .
. and you would have thought they won the lottery."
Martin acknowledges the past year has been bleak even for a woman as determined as she. "I used to get a job within a week or two. Now to get a job for one of my ex-cons it takes at least seven or eight months." Of the eighty-some people she counts as clients, just two are currently working regularly, though others have odd jobs like mowing lawns. The number had been higher in past months, but several of her people recently were laid off or had their hours cut drastically.
Martin is upset that a prosperous city like Ann Arbor doesn't do more to help those living on the edges. "People go to restaurants and ball games," she says. "They don't want to believe there's poverty here."
So why does Martin persist in such a thankless task? "I'm good at it," she answers. "I didn't pick it. It picked me . . . because I didn't mind going the whole distance and giving you hope."
Martin's two sons, both police officers, worry about her safety. "They tell me 'Mom, be careful with those ex-cons.' " But, she says, "I've been doing it for four years and nothing happens. My thing is, if nothing happens [to me], I'll keep doing it. If something happens, I'll stop."
[Originally published in May, 2009.]