Witnessing the struggles that our residents with criminal records face as they work towards a second chance inspired us to develop and host the Re:Entry Summit this past September. The public’s lack of awareness of the lasting impact criminal records have on individuals makes it difficult for The Women’s Home, and organizations like us, to gain support from our communities for clients confronting this uphill battle. Additionally, many of those leaving the criminal justice system often aren’t informed about the resources available to them upon reentering society.
Three graduates of our treatment and transitional housing program agreed to be panelists in the Re:Entry Summit for exactly these reasons. Tina Carr, Natasha Jones and Anna Rabe all know the value of second chances, and the Re:Entry Summit gave them the opportunity to talk about the impact that a new chance can have while putting a personal face on the issues of reentry. Though their stories are different, all three received their second chance when STAR Court, a diversion court program, offered them the opportunity to come to The Women’s Home as a part of the judicial process. STAR Court offers those facing nonviolent drug convictions the opportunity to enter a treatment program and work to regain their sobriety and independence. Participants that meet STAR Court requirements by the end of their program then have their criminal records expunged, enabling them to move forward with a fresh start.
Tina came to The Women’s Home after many encounters with the criminal justice system. “I felt like I was just a number,” she told the summit attendees. “I was called a habitual and was punished rather than provided treatment, which is what I needed.” STAR Court and The Women’s Home served as Tina’s introduction to recovery and life skills, which she embraced whole-heartedly. Today she works for The Harris Center for Mental Health, where she is a certified peer specialist in the Harris County Jail’s Mental Health Unit. “I never imagined that life could be so good. All of my liabilities have been turned into assets,” she says. Tina leads by example, helping those who are struggling the way she once was to believe that recovery is achievable for everyone. “People need a hand up,” she says. “And if we give this to them, we show them that things they did do not define who they are. We give them hope, and therefore they have hope in themselves and share this hope with others.”
Natasha told her story as part of a panel about the narratives of women in prison, but summit attendees had received a preview of her experience via this pre-recorded video that morning.
Natasha participated in the summit in the hope that her “experience and knowledge could help others understand how hard it is for women to get homes and work” after leaving the criminal justice system. Natasha had heard of The Women’s Home and wanted to participate in our program, but it was STAR Court that finally helped her be ready for The Home. “The Women’s Home gave me the support and tools I needed to live a fuller life,” she says. Today, Natasha is a happily married homeowner whose children are again a part of her life. Working as an apartment manager for a complex with a leasing policy that is forgiving to those with criminal histories, Natasha is happy to give others a second chance as well. She provides to her tenants a list of employers with inclusive hiring policies, so any residents seeking better opportunities know what’s available to them.
Anna spoke on a panel about the value of diversion court programs like STAR Court. “I wanted to give some insight into my experience with diversion court,” she says, “and to help paint a picture of the type of person they can help.” She came to The Home when STAR Court gave her the choice: either go through the traditional system or follow their guidelines alongside the structure The Women’s Home provided. “My court program gave me suggestions and held me accountable for [my own] job search,” she says. “The Women’s Home gave me support, therapy, job training, and helped me believe in myself and that I could recreate my life and be the person I set out to be years ago.” Today she is happy and healthy, with loving friends who appreciate who she is. Anna works as an employment professional, connecting those in need with important job opportunities. She adds, “Helping them put food on the table for their families is the best feeling in the world.”
The Women’s Home is grateful for the courage and honesty these three graduates from our program showed by standing up and speaking out at our Re:Entry Summit. By sharing their stories, they put a face to the often unseen and pervasive struggles that those reentering society encounter. They showed everyone attending the summit the value of a second chance.