By ZOE GREENBERG
December 27, 2017
New York Times
When Shirelle Howard left prison in 2016, she had $112 in her pocket — her life savings.
After buying her train ticket from Taconic Correctional Facility to Manhattan ($12.75); a MetroCard ($5); and two slices of pizza and a soda for her first meal of freedom in 16 years ($2.99), she had $91.26 to start over.
For a year, she struggled. And then she got a lifeline: a room at “Hope House,” a new transitional home in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx for women just leaving prison.
At least, she thought she did.
Ms. Howard, 54, has not been able to move in. At the last minute, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision decided that the house was not suitable for parolees. Meanwhile, some Castle Hill residents, horrified at the prospect of former prisoners moving into the neighborhood, have started a campaign to shut down the whole project. Ms. Howard is currently living in a homeless shelter.
The conflict over Hope House is something that vexes policymakers and ordinary citizens: When people are released from prison, where are they supposed to go?
Every year, about 26,000 people are released from prisons in New York State, according to recent data from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. (An additional 59,000 are released from New York City custody, according to the New York City Department of Correction.) When they reach the outside, their obstacles can multiply.
“You’re in prison, you’re in a closed environment,” said Ann Jacobs, the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s where you live, that’s where you get your clothes, that’s where you eat,” she continued. “Then you are suddenly out in the community. You’re basically constructing a whole life for yourself.”
Private housing is particularly hard to find, because most rentals require credit checks, landlord references, and deposits, resources former prisoners may not have. Public housing authorities can also restrict options for people with criminal records.
“The thing that everybody struggles with is housing,” said Ms. Jacobs.
Unlike most transitional housing, Hope House was initially conceived (and is run) by two women who met in federal prison: Topeka K. Sam, who served three and a half years on drug trafficking charges, and Vanee Sykes, who served three years and eleven months for stealing $7 million in food stamp benefits.
After she was released, Ms. Sam met Susan Burton, the founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a California nonprofit that helps women leaving prison. Ms. Burton had struggled with addiction and served time in prison herself and now runs five homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles. Ms. Sam wanted to provide the same service in New York.
And Ms. Burton believed she was the right person to do it.
“I took part of my life savings and gave it to her,” she said.
Supporters say homes like Hope House can reduce recidivism, save public money and turn lives around. “When you think about the long-term cost of recidivism, that’s a huge cost on the public,” said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit think tank. “If we’re giving people transitional services and community services, those cost much less than the full-time costs of incarcerating a person.”
But from the beginning, the road to Hope House has been bumpy.
Five women, including Ms. Howard, were given spots in the house after applying. But this fall, they were told, one by one, that they could not move in. So far, the only person who has been able to move in is a woman who has been out of prison for over a decade.
Hope House “is not licensed, it does not follow a consistent set of recognized standards, and is not properly zoned,” the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement. “In addition, the request was not submitted through the Department’s formal request for proposal process.”
Ms. Sam and Ms. Burton say there is no licensing requirement, or any need for a formal process because Hope House is not seeking funds from the state. The zoning issues apparently arose from two complaints filed by neighbors who don’t want former prisoners on their block; the city inspected the house and did not find it in violation.
Most people who live in the neighborhood surrounding Hope House are black or Hispanic and more than a quarter live below the poverty line. They say that they have struggled to build a community; that an influx of former prisoners could threaten what they have achieved.
At a homeowners’ association meeting in November, about 30 people gathered to discuss the new tenants, and brainstorm how to keep them out. Many were worried about property values falling if former prisoners moved in. Others were concerned about safety; that the new tenants would bring violence and drug deals to the block. They also worried about a possible lack of supervision in the house and a lack of transparency from the beginning about what the house would be for.
“It changes the complexion and character of our neighborhood,” said Doni WalkerSantiago, an attorney and a homeowner in Castle Hill for 40 years.
Yvonne Patrick, an almost 20-year homeowner who is also protesting the house, said that she’s particularly conflicted because her own work involves setting up group homes for people who are intellectually challenged. She has often been on the other side of the debate, defending new tenants to nervous community boards.
“They do care that people get second chances,” she said of her neighbors, “but not in that little neighborhood.”
A town hall meeting scheduled for January will bring together potential tenants, the neighbors, and elected officials.
Ms. Howard grew up in the Bronx, not far from where the community meeting took place. In her 20s, she sold sex and robbed people to pay for crack, sleeping in abandoned buildings and subways. In 1991, she began a minimum nine-year sentence for robbery. Within three days of her release in 2000, she was back to smoking crack and stealing. Soon afterward, she was convicted of attempted robbery again and sentenced to 16 years to life.
But during her second sentence, she said that she changed. At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison in Westchester County, Ms. Howard began working in the nursery with babies born there, and she earned her associate’s degree. She returned to the Christian faith of her childhood and said that she became sober through prayer. Now she has a part-time job doing maintenance and is a boisterous presence, cracking jokes and advising friends, many of whom she met through a network of formerly incarcerated women.
But she said that shelter life is harrowing and prevents her from moving forward. Living there is like “another prison,” said Ms. Howard, who thinks that Hope House would be much more supportive and nurturing. “You’re around people that care about you. You have the things that you need to progress in life,” she said.
Inside Hope House, the rooms look like they’re from a catalog: Twin beds with matching comforters; freshly-painted gray walls hung with posters that say things like “You are Amazing” in curling gold letters. People from across the country who learned about the house have donated dozens of goods from a registry, which are piled in the living room: toothpaste, soap, tampons, gold cutlery, a flat-screen TV, a Keurig coffee maker, white bathrobes, clothing for job interviews, and a griddle for pancakes.
To apply to live in Hope House, women must submit two letters of reference, write an essay detailing why they want to join, and go through an interview. Their crime is not considered in the application process, Ms. Sam and Ms. Sykes said.
“The goal is to provide opportunity to the people who don’t have a chance already,” Ms. Sam said, which means considering people who may have sentences that would prevent them from getting housing elsewhere. Accepting people with serious criminal histories alarms the neighbors, but Ms. Jacobs, of the Reentry Institute, said there’s no better alternative.
“Welcoming them into the fabric of the community seems like a much more viable strategy than isolating them,” Ms. Jacobs explained. “Where is the leper colony we’re supposed to isolate them from society in?”