By: Matt Hansen
Life is different for a 48-year-old starting over. Andre Cates is older than most of his classmates in college and he just moved out of transitional housing into his first-ever apartment.
He sometimes worries in class when asked to talk about his past, although he’s always greeted warmly when he does. At times, he struggles to maintain close relationships and meet new friends who understand his background.
Cates is proud of his life, but it’s not easy bearing the stigma of incarceration.
He grew up during one of New York’s toughest eras, as the city grappled with bankruptcy and crime in the 1970s and 80s. And in neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Cates came of age, families often struggled with their own personal demons, too.
“I was surrounded by drugs,” Cates remembered. “At a very early age, when my mind and body were still developing, these were the behaviors I was absorbing.”
Both his parents were heroin addicts and his father was in and out of prison while his mother, who had never learned to read, struggled to support the family.
There was a bright spot in his youth, though: Cates was smart and he knew his intelligence could be a way out. He did so well in school that he skipped fifth grade and went straight to junior high school.
But that’s when his path started to unravel. By 13, he was grappling with a full-blown drug habit that led him to petty theft.
After holding up three cab drivers with a toy gun for cash to feed his addiction, he went to prison for six years.
In 1992, Cates was released at 24, equipped with a GED he had earned in prison. A family member got him a job working construction, but he was, by his own admission, distracted.
“I still wanted to get out and experience the streets,” he remembered. “I still had that adolescent mentality.”
He says the tipping point was smoking marijuana at a party, which set him back on the path towards addiction. And when his heroin habit returned, he fell back into old patterns.
After another series of taxi robberies to pay for drugs, Cates ended up in prison again — this time for 23 years. But, paradoxically, Cates says that his long sentence changed him for the better.
“As irrational as it may sound, that was the turning point in my life,” he said.
Cates knew he needed to change and that meant revisiting some painful memories.
“I had to address why I got high in the first place,” he said. “I knew I got high because I grew up around it. I watched my mom and pops, who I idolized, do it. So I thought I could do it, that it was acceptable.”
He went sober — not even a cigarette — and has remained so since October 1993. He studied trades including air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance and took all the courses he could access in prison. He led educational programs on the risk of HIV and helped inmates who were about to be released.
Sadly, while incarcerated, most of his immediate family passed away, including both his parents, his brother, and his sister. So when he was released, Cates was entirely on his own.
He knew he needed support after 20 years removed from society. In prison, he had heard countless stories of the tough obstacles facing recently released inmates, from finding a job to finding a place to live to finding acceptance among family and friends.
That’s where the Center for Employment Opportunities, or CEO, entered his life. A Robin Hood-funded program that helps the recently incarcerated prepare for careers, CEO has helped almost 25,000 people find full-time work after their release.
At CEO, Cates learned “not only what it takes to get a job but to keep a job.” He benefited from hands-on training in job skills and assistance finding careers that were a good fit for his talents.
With the staff’s help, Cates secured a position at Project Renewal, a homeless services organization, where he has now worked for the past two years as a residential counselor. He spends his weekends working at a detox center, helping people with substance abuse issues.
Beyond his immediate success, Cates also credits CEO’s inspiring staff with his long-term goals. He is three semesters into his undergraduate degree in social work, specializing in early childhood development. When he graduates, he will be the first person in his family with a college degree.
Between two jobs and school, Andre has little time for anything else.
“Sometimes I go with maybe 12 hours of sleep a week,” he said.
But he is dedicated to his future and eager to make up for lost time.
He hopes one day to apologize face-to-face to the cab drivers he held up for “being a selfish addict.” He has their names memorized.
And he hopes that, diploma in hand, he can begin a career in social work, intervening in the lives of kids in the same predicament he faced.
“One of the things I remember as a child was not having anyone to talk to. I’ve been there,” he said. “I want to listen to them and hear their story.”
Having walked the hard road can help him spare other kids from doing the same, he hopes.