Christian Cross


Credit: Waiting For The Word on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

(WOMENSENEWS)–Missy Denard prayed for six years before she rented the first home for New Beginnings in Abilene, Texas, for women who have nowhere to go.

That was in 2011. Since then the two-bedroom house with an attached apartment has been housing up to six women and Denard has acquired another house and an apartment building to rent to approximately 65 more women, all with children.

The female prison population in the United States continues to grow at an alarming rate. From 2000 through 2009, the number of women incarcerated in state or federal prisons rose by 21.6 percent, compared to a 15.6 percent increase for men. A total of 205,000 women were in U.S. prisons or jail in 2010, with the families and communities being torn apart as a result, according to a released earlier this year by The Sentencing Project.

As the need grows, some members of religious communities are creating new ways to respond to women leaving prison, including teaching them that Christ loves and forgives them.

Denard has learned to expect calls at any time of day or night when one of her beds has opened up. It’s not rare for her to go to the bus station at 2 a.m.

“They’d be coming from state jail or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” says Denard, who recently became the female chaplain at Taylor County Jail. “I just picked one up yesterday. I just never know. I may have somebody that gets out of prison and they might call me today and say ‘I will be on the bus.'”

Many of the women who come to New Beginnings hear about it through word of mouth. Denard says she also works closely with probation and parole. “They recommend people to come as well.”

The women who seek out her place have few options. Their families have often given up on them, “or kind of washed their hands of them,” says Denard, who has been in prison ministry for more than 10 years.

Between 15 percent and 27 percent of prisoners expect to go to homeless shelters upon release from prison, according to a Human Rights Watch report, but the exact scope of the problem is hard to quantify.

“Housing and homelessness stats are tough to come by for lots of reasons,” says Leah Kane, deputy program director for national initiatives at Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has offices in several cities, including New York and Seattle. “Studies tend to be limited to specific geographic areas and follow a pretty small number of people, which makes it hard to generalize trends, and housing instability makes it hard to track people for research purposes. Limit the research to women, and there’s even less out there.”

Hindered Efforts

For some women, the effort to rejoin civilian life is hindered by “living environments” that do not provide “positive influences,” finds a . On top of that, local laws and regulations can prevent some people with criminal records from entering public housing.

For women leaving prisons, a group such as New Beginnings can fill a void.

“Certainly, there is a need there and it’s great for organizations to want to fill it to the extent that they’re maintaining fidelity to what we know are best practices with reentry,” says Jocelyn Fontaine, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who studies innovative community-based crime reduction and reentry initiatives targeted to vulnerable populations.

In March 2012 the U.S. Department of Labor announced about $12 million in grants to provide work force development and support services for formerly incarcerated females as they transition from jails and prisons. The government promotes the grants as ways to save taxpayer dollars by decreasing the country’s incarceration bills.

But for New Beginnings government grants are not part of the funding equation. Instead, the women are encouraged to find jobs and help support the operation until they are ready to move on.

Some of New Beginnings’ annual budget of about $70,000 comes from rent that residents start paying after finding jobs. “Depending on their situation, if they get paid minimum wage and have child support and probation fees they pay what they can,” Denard says in an email interview.

The organization is planning to start a furniture re-finishing business to help support its services and to provide employment to residents.

To help reunite the women with their families and children, the facility hosts family and art nights and barbecues. One house has a pool the women and children can enjoy. It’s also used for baptismals.

Denard says more than 40 percent of the women who have lived in a New Beginnings residence have stayed out of jail. But, she adds, “I don’t know what the Lord is doing in the others’ [lives.] I hear from families thanking me, saying it really helped even though it doesn’t seem like it.”

Denard says New Beginnings is far more than a crash pad. “They have to be willing to want to change their life and be willing to live a new life in Christ,” she says. Bible study runs for a couple of hours twice a week.

A Different Model

Another faith-based model is provided by Bristol Road to Recovery for Women, Inc., a Bristol, Tenn., nonprofit with one house with room for up to eight women that operates on an annual budget of $100,000.

Aside from residents’ rent contributions, it supports itself by donations and fundraising that includes yard sales and an annual gala featuring a “reverse auction,” where items needed by the organization are showcased and guests bid for the chance to donate.

Bristol Road was started by Marjorie Tester and Donna Camper in 2008. The two met in the 1980s when they sang in church choir together but later lost touch. “In 2005 we were re-united at a spiritual retreat and then started attending Bible study together,” says Tester. “A year later it weighed on our hearts to start Bristol Road.”

The two spent five years looking for the right house. Once they found it, Tester reached out to the zoning board to ensure the two-story single-family house with yard and front and back porches was acceptable.

Even though Bristol Road’s house is in a “tight residential area with 30 homes,” Tester says she didn’t face “not-in-my-backyard” opposition. She describes one of the immediate neighbors as “very supportive.”

Bristol Road’s first resident still resides in the house Tester and Camper purchased and goes to church with one of the organization’s board members Sunday mornings. They have Bible study every morning and evening, Tester says in an email interview.

There are three women residing in the house now. “There are three more coming in the next two weeks,” Tester says.

Bristol Road will help the women find employment and provide aftercare services for three months, including recovery meetings, assistance with finding permanent housing, spiritual support and mentoring.

The women are able to reside in housing supported by Bristol Road for nine months and contribute about 25 percent of their income toward rent.

“Healing in a safe and healthy Christian environment will help our client graduate our program and move on to a better future,” says Tester.

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