By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
With the number of homeless women throughout the city on the rise, one local non-profit organization, in association with a historically African-American church, is dedicated to provide additional transitional housing for women just out of prison.
The non-profit Highland Access Recovery Reentry Program (HARRP) will be renovating an eight-bed residence near the campus of Highland Christian Center in northeast Portland to become a part of a six-month residential program, which will emphasize clean and sober living with strict rules, 24-hour supervision, a vegetable garden, counseling and mentoring.
“We keep seeing more and more women coming out of prison with no place to go,” said Louise Wedge, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and peer mentor at HARRP. “There has always been a need for transitional housing, but there is just more of a need now.”
Wedge, who was in and out of prison for a number of years while battling drug and alcohol addiction, said she knows what it’s like first-hand.
“It’s like wearing the Scarlett Letter,” she said. “Women get out of prison, and they feel alienated, left behind and that no one understands them.”
Although several women who have been in and out of the system want to find jobs, housing and begin a healthy life, Wedge said there are not enough resources available throughout the city to support them.
“We have seen a lot of women who want to change their lives, but have to put it on hold because they have no place to live,” she said.
The organization, which provides peer mentoring and counseling for individuals during times of transition, said the shortage of housing comes at a time when the number of women going to prison is at an all time high.
“There is a serious need for housing for women,” said Felton Howard Jr., a navigator at Mercy Corps Northwest’s Reentry Transition Center. “We’ve noticed a great increase in just the last two years.”
By working with a network of public and private organizations, HARRP has served over 30 formerly incarcerated people since July 2010 on a mission to better the client’s chances of success outside of prison, increase public safety, and strengthen family and community.
More than often those who have been to prison have an increased level of challenges to find a healthy safe place to stay, said Wedge. “And they don’t always have any one they can talk to about their struggles.”
Gunnar Browning, correctional rehabilitation manager at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, who supervises the counselors who work with female intakes, said one of the main goals is to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison.
“So we teach them the skills they need to make them more successful so they can stay out of prison,” he said. “We do case management and assessments to see where their area of needs are, and then match them up with the appropriate programs in the facility.”
According to Browning, Coffee Creek was created in 2001 to provide women inmates several programs and services, including correctional programs, alcohol and drug counseling, work-based education programs, and basic cognitive programs. A wide-range of transition programs are aimed to help inmates find employment, have financial responsibility, find housing once they are released, and begin their transition back into society.
“From my knowledge of working with females and counselors, we don’t have enough transitional type housing for the need that is out there,” he said. “So what we want to do is teach them skills so they won’t have to come back to prison.”
Although solid programming exists to help inmates eliminate their old habits and behaviors while within the correctional facility, Wedge explained how women on the outside still need a community that supports them.
He said the need for more resources and facilities for women cannot be ignored.
“Women are suffering,” said Wedge.
Even with all the preparation for life on the outside, if you have been in prison, it is hard to find a place to stay, she said.
Waynette Dodson, a certified counselor and also a mentor for HARRP, said she couldn’t agree more, calling HARRP’s transitional housing unit “long overdue.”
Wedge recalled the story of one of her clients who attended meetings everyday, but couldn’t find a home to live in after she was released from prison.
“She clearly didn’t want to get back into the drug and alcohol life,” said Wedge, who added that the woman signed herself into a second treatment program just to get housing.
“She had to, and that is said,” said Wedge. “In order to stay clean, this is what she had to do, when she should be starting her life over.”
According to Browning, a successful life after serving time really depends on the ex-offender’s willingness to change.
“It all depends on how well they are prepared in regards to old habits and old behaviors,” he said. “That is really the key.”
Browning said with solid programming, the work of parole officers and a good working relationship with county services, the support for the inmate and their transition is the main priority.
Wedge agrees, and she is determined to help as many women as possible, like others helped her, by providing individuals space to begin their lives anew.
“We’ll have 12-step meetings, Highland’s Counseling Center and church all within a few steps of the residence,” said HARRP director Larry Johnson. “HARRP will be an asset to the community, and a place of peace for women who have a desire to change.”
Wedge said she has seen too many women who want to change their lives and put it on hold because they had no where to begin.
“People have a tendency to think that people on the streets want to be there. That may be true for some, but some are trapped,” she said. “We want to touch the women who are trapped, and help reunite them with their loved ones.”