(Host) For many Vermonters, finding affordable housing is challenging. For men and women just out of prison, it’s an even bigger problem. In the third of our weeklong prison series, VPR’s Nina Keck examines the housing crunch for offenders and reports on the efforts of one nonprofit organization in Rutland that’s trying to help.
(Keck) Jennifer Litch is a twenty something mother of two who served almost two years in prison on drug related offenses. She says the time behind bars helped her to get clean and sober. Now, her biggest problem is finding a place to live.
(Litch) “I’ve been searching for an apartment for two months and I get denied over and over again – criminal record, criminal record.”
(Keck) Rob Hofmann, Vermont’s Commissioner of Corrections says housing is one of the biggest problems facing newly released offenders.
(Hofmann) “In other states it’s very common to have dorms or large reentry housing units that would be situated in the community. That doesn’t fit with Vermont, so we relay on nonprofits and private landlords for the residences.”
(Keck) To help support them, Hofmann says lawmakers set aside $1 million for transitional housing programs. Vermont’s Dismas is one such program. They operate two halfway houses – one in Burlington and one in Rutland. Matt Sullivan remembers arriving at Rutland’s Dismas House. A staff member met him. Like most people leaving prison, Sullivan carried everything he owned in a garbage bag.
(Sullivan) “I walked in and she gave me a big hug. So you know you’re welcome right off the bat. They make you feel comfortable. She handed me a welcome basket – and it had shampoo and toothpaste and toothbrush and soap and everything you needed. You check your room out and it actually had a bed in there, not a cot, with a real mattress. And, you feel, you know, right at home really.”
(Keck) A Catholic priest opened the first Dismas House in Tennessee. Rita Walen-McAffrey helped bring the organization to Vermont.
(McAffrey) “We say Dismas is family and we create community with them by having everybody help out with the chores. We make our decisions by consensus so they learn about compromise – and you know, that’s an important skill.”
(Sounds of dinner)
(Keck) One of the most powerful ways they create a family atmosphere is by eating dinner together. Residents, staff, volunteers and guests gather around an enormous dining room table every night. The meal starts with grace then people take turns sharing their thoughts.
(Bauer) “I’m Don and I’m grateful to be back to work today. It’s been a long time.”
(Keck) Don Bauer, of Wilmington, served two years in prison on drug related charges.
(Bauer) “If I wasn’t fortunate enough to be accepted at the Dismas house, where I can truly begin a new life without the financial demands of an apartment and power and a phone that you need to have, it would be very hard to be successful out there without a place like this to come to.”
(Keck) Residents at Dismas are expected to pay $75 a week for room and board. They’re also expected to support each other. And while it doesn’t work for everyone, 84% of Dismas house residents nationwide don’t go back to prison.
After dinner, a number of residents sit on the home’s front porch. One strums a guitar. Jennifer Litch says living in a group home isn’t easy. She’s away from her sons and privacy is hard to come by. But she says it’s comforting to be around people who understand. She needed that support the first time she picked up her boys from school after being released.
(Litch) “Having all the soccer moms stand there with their hands over their mouths whispering to each other and your son’s not understanding and he shouts out – this is my mom and she just got out of jail!’ You know, and having these little 6 or 7 year old little kids with their eyes as big as half dollars looking like they think you’re going to reach out and kidnap or beat them up or something. It’s just it’s in every aspect pretty much.”
(Keck) Places like Dismas can’t erase the scares left by time spent in prison. But Litch and other residents say effective halfway houses can offer people who are especially vulnerable a safe and affordable place to catch their breath and start over.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.