Bridging the Opportunity Divide

A Vision of Healing, and Hope, for Formerly Incarcerated Women

September 7, 2018
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A Vision of Healing, and Hope, for Formerly Incarcerated Women
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Hope House co-founders Vanee Sykes (left) and Topeka K. Sam at an open house celebrating the opening of their transitional housing unit. Photo courtesy of Hope House
Is transitional housing the antidote to recidivism? In the Bronx, an experiment by two former inmates aims to find out.

Topeka K. Sam sits on a plush purple sofa in the living room of an immaculate row house in the Bronx, ordaining all of the ladies in the room. Sam, a founder of Hope House, a residence for previously incarcerated women, points to her cofounder, Vanee Sykes. “She’s a Lady of Hope,” Sam says, then swivels and points at another woman who has just entered the room. “That’s another Lady of Hope.” And, apparently, so too is this reporter. “The Ladies of Hope is you, and it’s all of us,” she adds. “If you are a resource to women who are coming here, then you are a Lady of Hope, you know? It’s about all women empowering other women and providing them hope and opportunity.”

Both Sam and Sykes know something about needing hope to thrive, having been formerly incarcerated themselves. Their experience with the difficulties most women face when trying to reintegrate into society led them to found Hope House, which officially opened its doors in October 2017.

The idea of Hope House, Sam says, is that women coming out of prison have the deck stacked against them. “You gotta start with basic needs,” Sam says. “I can’t advocate for myself or feel that I’m powerful enough to go get a job if I don’t have somewhere to live and I don’t have food in my stomach.”

In addition to food and shelter, Hope House provides another crucial ingredient: community. The house currently accommodates five women, all of whom sleep on the upstairs level. Signs featuring positive aphorisms, like “Love Life,” hang on the walls, and the beds — which the women are required to make every morning — are decorated with stylish coverlets. Downstairs is the kitchen and cozy living room, all walls painted a soothing shade of gray. It’s here that the women gather, cook, talk about their day, and allow themselves to grieve and to heal.

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One of the shared bedrooms at Hope House.Photo courtesy of Hope House

So many women who land in prison are victims of sexual abuse, Sykes says, and Hope House is a place where women can safely process their pain in order to move forward. “Any given night here, we’re hugging and we’re crying, [because] it’s a safe space,” Sykes adds, tearing up as she speaks. “And it’s not just a safe space where we can live, but it’s a safe space mentally. You know, where it’s OK for me to say that this has happened, and that there’s other women here who are not going to judge, but who are just going to say, ‘This is what worked for me’ or ‘This is how I got through this.’ And that’s what I love about being here.”

Sam and Sykes met in 2013 while at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a low-security prison about 70 miles north of New York City, and the inspiration for the fictional “Litchfield” prison featured in the hit Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.” Both did time for nonviolent offenses — Sykes for embezzling money, Sam for drug trafficking — and when they got out, they witnessed the insurmountable barriers that women with a rap sheet can face, the greatest of which is, arguably, finding a landlord who will rent to them. “It was in my heart to do a house [like Hope House] while I was in prison,” Sykes says.

But they were also lucky and had supportive families to come home to. Many women, especially poor women, are not so blessed.  “When I got home, I started going around, organizing with other women around women’s issues and incarceration,” Sam says. “And just seeing that it was the same issues happening: Women need housing, women need resources, women need all these things.” She threw herself into community activism and founded Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women and girls re-enter society and out of which Hope House grew.

Along the way, Sam earned several grants and fellowships, including at Columbia University, where she was named a Beyond the Bars fellow in 2015 and a Justice-in-Education Initiative scholar in 2016. She also received funding and support from Unlocked Futures, a program backed in part by singer John Legend.

Sam modeled Hope House in part off of a California-based nonprofit called A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, which helps women with housing and related services when they leave prison. The founder of that organization, Susan Burton, became instrumental in offering guidance and seed money to help Sam get Hope House off the ground. “We need to make investments to get people started in the struggle to reduce recidivism, strengthen our communities, and repair the harm done by mass incarceration,” says Burton, who wrote a memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, about her own journey from prison to community activist. “And that’s what Hope House stands for.”

Not that Sam and Sykes didn’t hit some road bumps along the way. They scoured the city for months to find a place to set up shop before they found the cute, fully remodeled row house in the South Central Bronx neighborhood of Castle Hill, a stone’s throw from bucolic Pugsley Creek Park. The landlord loved the idea of the house, but neighbors kicked up a fuss. So Sam and Sykes took to social media and started a campaign they called Stand With Hope House. They did media interviews and went to community board meetings. Eventually their neighbors relented.

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A group of women shares a meal in the Hope House dining room.Photo courtesy of Hope House

“We stood up for ourselves and said that we’re not going anywhere,” Sykes says. “We have a right to live here, just [like] anyone else.”

Sam and Sykes used similar social media savvy when decorating the house, crowd-funding the project via funds donated from strangers around the world. “We put up the registry on social media, and people donated,” Sam says. “It was absolutely phenomenal.” They now have the funding to open another Hope House in New Jersey and after, that, in Brooklyn. Their hope is that others will step in to help them scale the project, possibly turning Hope House into a franchise.

“Ultimately our goal is to have a Hope House in every single state in our country and abroad,” says Sam.

In 2017, Sam won a Soros Justice Fellowship to work on a project around probation and parole accountability. “It came from my experience on probation and parole, [witnessing] the arbitrariness and counterproductiveness that was happening,” she says. “And I knew if this was happening to me, it had to be happening to many other people. I found out that 4.7 million people are on operational parole in this country.”

The majority of people sitting in prisons are there because of technical violations, Sam says. They need support, to be given access to resources and to opportunity — not to be dumped in a federal halfway house and then shackled with an ankle bracelet for six months, adds Sykes, speaking from personal experience. Burton’s own success speaks to this: Since 1998, she has helped over 1,000 women and children with her re-entry homes, and in 2017, she had a 100% success rate in keeping her residents from being reincarcerated.

The stakes are even higher for people of color: Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated in prison or jail, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely to be institutionalized. In addition, black children are almost nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison; and Hispanic children are four times more likely to have a parent behind bars.

The impact on their families can last generations. Sykes had three children when she was incarcerated — her oldest then a senior at Howard University, she says with pride — but her spouse died before she was released. And Sykes considers herself lucky: She comes from a stable upper-middle-class family, and so she saw her children, who were then living with her parents, quite frequently. Many women are not so lucky. “The hardest part of incarceration is not being with your children,” she says.  

Jessie Jones (not her real name) has been living at the Hope House since last December. Jones, 64, had been out of prison for a decade — after having spent 23 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for a drug-fueled robbery gone awry — but her housing situation had become untenable. Her last apartment was cheap, she says, because it was illegal and basically falling apart. The landlord started making passes at her, which she allowed once before trying, and failing, to make him stop. Desperate to avoid moving into a shelter, Jones stumbled upon Hope House. Like all residents, Jones had to apply to live in the house, and she pays 30% of her wages as a cook for a nonprofit as rent. (Residents are required to either have a job or be in school when they apply. Students are exempt from paying rent.)

“It’s a beautiful house, and Vanee and Topeka are the best people, the vision of healing,” Jones says. She still has her bad days, but living at Hope House with people who genuinely love and care about her is helping build her confidence back up.

“Hope House is exactly what it is,” she says. “It gives you hope.”

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