West Side transition home helps recently released female inmates to re-enter society

Outside of the Grace House on the West Side of Chicago which houses recently released women from prison in order to help them re-build their lives.
Outside of the Grace House on the West Side of Chicago which houses recently released women from prison in order to help them re-build their lives.

By J’nelle Agee

Each year hundreds of women are released from the Illinois Department of Corrections system and are faced with the decision of whether they want to change their life or continue their personal downward spiral.

The Grace House, a transitional home on the West Side, has programs to help with self-growth and equip these women with life-skills to re-enter society.

The Grace House opened in 1994 under the umbrella of St. Leonard’s Ministries, an Episcopal organization that provides residential, case management and employment services for those recently released from prison. The ministry also has an interim housing facility for men. It provides residents of both houses with classes through the St. Leonard’s Alternative High School program, and pre-employment training through the Michael Barlow Educational Center.

St. Leonard’s is primarily funded by contributions and government grants. In 2013, $1.6 million and $1.2 million came from donors and grants, respectively.

Women apply to be a resident of the house by filling out an application, which is then followed up by a telephone interview, one to two months before the women are able to move into the home.

“We try to assess do they just want a place to live or do they really want see themselves in enrichment and better themselves,” said Sharlyn Pech, administrative assistant at the Grace House. We try to focus on that this is really a program, to emphasize that this is a time of self-healing and focusing on yourself; it’s just not room and board.”

The house is equipped with 18 beds for women to stay during the voluntary 180-day program. Currently there are 10 residents in the house whose ages range from 30 up.

Returning to mentor

Alumnae of the program are often encouraged to return to the home to mentor and work. Shontell Lymas, who completed the program in 2102, is now a house monitor. As a part-time worker at the home, Lymas says it’s easier for the residents to relate to her because she is an alumna of the program and has successfully applied for housing and employment.

“We encourage them, we want them to go to school, but we also want them to work. We also don’t want them to forget the main purpose of them staying, to get clean and focus on their sobriety because without that, they can’t work, they can’t go to school,” Lymas said.

When the women arrive at the house they are required to participate in an outpatient addiction treatment program for three days a week at the Women’s Treatment center. Lymas constantly reminds the residents, “If I can do it, anybody can do it. And it’s not hard.”

Since completing the program at the house, Lymas has moved into an affordable housing unit and received her sanitation license. She is also the recent recipient of a scholarship to attend Malcolm X College, which would not have been possible of she had not completed the educational program and pre-employment services and classes through the Grace House.

Women also take part in counseling sessions with the Adler Psychological Center two days a week to work on communication tactics and conflict resolution, Pech explained. They also take part in classes in parenting skills and child development, as well as workshops on self-esteem, relationships and spiritual development.

Grace House staff holds weekly recovery, housing and life-skills meetings, which teach the women how to build a credit record, open a bank account and create a budget.

Difficulty finding employment

Claudia Banks, director of marketing and communication for the Safer Foundation, says the biggest barrier for inmates re-entering society is employment, because of the stigma of having a criminal record.

“We have a system that focuses on being punished rather than correcting. Once they come out we are seeing they are still being punished. Even though they have served their time and served their debt to society there are still barriers to things like just getting acceptable housing,” Banks said.

Safer Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides services for those with a criminal record and helps  individuals recently released from prison to find and maintain employment.

“You know [when] people leave prison, they often have other significant deficits — primarily educational, mental health, substance abuse issues — so first these people need to be able to address those. The Grace House offers many of these supportive services,” Banks said.

The house provides opportunities for the women to slowly ease back into real-life situations such as allowing residents to go out on weekend passes. In addition, it has events for the residents that include retreats, trips and a yearly alumnae picnic, as well as days and events where their children can visit them at the house.

One of the program’s highlights is that it places its residents in affordable housing once they complete the program. Women move into housing that has supportive services, so they are able to continue the help they received during their program.

Residents are required to get a part-time job while they are at the house and then must put 75 percent of their income into a savings account. Those funds are used to put down a deposit on an apartment when they are able to leave the transition home.

Help with housing

As soon as the residents enter Grace House they are immediately put on the wait list for housing through the Chicago Housing Authority housing lottery. Residents are also placed in housing through Rapid Re-Housing, part of the Homelessness Prevention Program established though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides financial assistance and services to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless.

The Grace House also has connections with Harvest Commons, a housing community developed by the Heartland Alliance.

GraceGraphic-1Pech noted that the program that started in 1994 has been so successful that over the past few years they have only seen 3 percent of residents returning to prison after completing the program. She explained that programs like those offered at transitional houses like the Grace House are crucial for this population to have  any kind of successful re-entry in society.

In recent years, the program has been altering its admissions process by accepting women from various recovery programs. They are looking to return to solely accepting women who are just being released from prison, like when the house first opened 20 years ago.

The Grace House’s mission is to help those who can’t help themselves. Pech noted that as one of the first programs of its kind in Chicago, the house and its staff have assisted hundreds of women over the years and continue to do so.