Home helps women transition to independent life after prison, substance abuse
The future was looking increasingly frightening to 54-year-old Anita as she got to the end of her six-year prison sentence.
All along, she had assumed that she’d be able to live with her mother while she got back on her feet, but a couple months before Anita’s sentence ended, her mother changed her mind. Anita had nowhere to go.
Until a prison chaplain told her about a program called Clean Slate Coalition that took in women like Anita, helping them to transition from prison back into real life. Anita put in an application.
“They accepted me. I would have been out on the streets without them,” said Anita, who asked that her last name not be used.
Unfortunately, “the streets” are exactly where many recently released prisoners end up, said Marsha Crites, executive director of Clean Slate, which is based in Sylva. Inmates often leave the prison walls with little to no money, debt from fines, fees and missed payments such as child support, and scant help from family. Building a life after prison is an uphill battle.
“When you come out, there is really no safety net for you,” Crites said. “If you have committed certain crimes, you can’t get food stamps, you can’t get financial aid to go to school. You can’t vote. You probably owe a lot of money. People probably don’t want to hire you. We expect these people to regain their lives, but we put every obstacle in their path.”
Without help, the easiest path is often the one that leads right back to prison — even for people who want to make a change.
“I didn’t do anything real bad,” Anita said. “I just made a couple of mistakes, and that’s all it took. Thank God that I have Clean Slate to come to or I might be in some crazy predicament in the hometown.”
Forming Clean Slate
Crites started realizing all of this several years ago when she and co-organizer Alice Mason served as chaplains to women at the Jackson County Jail. She’d say goodbye to someone when their release date came up only to see them come back through the jail doors later, driven by the traps of abusive relationships or destructive situations that had been waiting for them outside.
“We decided what they needed was a place to live, not just support,” Crites said.
So, Clean Slate was born, envisioned as a one-year program to get women leaving incarceration or addiction treatment — primarily from Western North Carolina — the help they needed to start life anew as successful adults. The organization got its start in 2011, renting a house in Sylva to serve up to eight women at a time.
“They come to us sometimes straight out of homelessness, sometimes straight out of an institution,” Crites said. “We get referrals from a lot of agencies. But they all come with a certain amount of brokenness and a sense of hopelessness about where they’re going. Our job is to restore their hope.”
Originally, the concept was that the women would pay rent for their rooms, which would allow Clean Slate to pay rent for its building without raising extra funds. But it was quickly obvious that wasn’t going to work, because most of the Clean Slate women arrive with no financial resources at all and little prospect of finding a living wage job.
To get around that obstacle, last year Clean Slate began working on its own social enterprise, the term for a business whose profits go to support a social need. The women started formulating and packaging their own line of non-toxic cleaners and in June began selling them at the Jackson County Farmers Market, along with heavy-duty tote bags they sew themselves from upholstery fabric. Clean Slate pays them for their work but requires them to give back one-third of what they earn to go toward rent.
“Now we are reaching out to offices, businesses and individuals who might need to either buy our supplies or use our cleaning services. We’re right at the cusp of being financially sustainable,” Crites said.
To further that end of financial sustainability, Clean Slate is looking for people to join the Clean Slate Investment Circle, a circle formed around the idea that, while it costs the state about $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison, helping them change their life for the better is much cheaper. Clean Slate is looking for 10 businesses, 10 churches or civic groups and 10 individuals to commit to giving $1,000 per year for a total of $30,000 to provide a baseline of support for eight Clean Slate Women.
“If we’re not out trying to raise funds all the time, we’re more available to do what the women need out here in the house,” Crites explained.
In addition to working in the cleaning business — whether making the products, selling them, cleaning with them or sewing bags — the women also get individual attention to help them with their specific needs. They’re required to be in recovery services, do some volunteer work, either work or go to school, keep the house neat and abide by a curfew. Each has a one-on-one meeting with a case manager once per week, and all the women get together for a weekly family meeting. Clean Slate also connects them with spiritual support and opportunities that fit their needs and goals.
“One of the first wonderful things that happened at Clean Slate was that I was allowed to go swimming several times a week this past summer,” wrote Stephanie, a current resident who came to Clean Slate after an alcohol addiction relapse landed her in the hospital.
“Swimming was good for my body and soul, and I began to have hope that I could recover”, she said.
When Stephanie first arrived at Clean Slate, Crites said, she was “very broken.” It was that process of getting well, becoming close with the other women, learning to sew and make bags, that helped her to heal.
“I felt busy, needed, productive and was earning a little money,” Stephanie said. “Today I feel like my addiction is under control. I rarely even think about alcohol, and I look forward to my future. I know that coming to Clean Slate was God’s plan for me, and I am so happy.”
Crites still remembers one of the first women who ever came to Clean Slate. She had been in prison for many years and was “literally shut down.”
“Over the course of the year she learned so many skills and got a job and bought a car, and now lives independently,” Crites said.
Clean Slate has served people ranging in age from 19 to 60, whose life experiences are all over the map. But a pivotal part of the program is the way that everyone in the house comes together, forming a family whose love and support helps each member go farther than she would on her own.
“There’s a lot of love and support in this house,” Crites said. “It’s not like an institution. It’s a family.”
For many women, experiencing that safety and love is a game-changer.
“I’m safe. I’m warm and I have food to eat and good people,” Anita said, “and that’s about anything I could possibly ask for.”
That’s a pretty common reaction, Crites said.
“Sometimes this is the safest place that the women have ever been,” she said. “When I worked in the jail as a chaplain, I heard that same thing — ‘This jail is the safest place I have ever been.’ That’ s a pretty dramatic statement.”
Clean Slate is still working to come up with a good system to track its graduates, but while Crites says she knows of some who have relapsed, she knows of far more who have gone on to live full, independent lives.
“We know that a very high percentage of those who have left us are successfully working within the community, because we see them when we go out in town,” she said.
Running into a Clean Slate graduate, seeing that she’s got her own car, a job, a place of her own and a smile on her face is a big reward. But Crites would like to see Clean Slate’s impact grow. The house usually has a few empty beds, and there are plenty of women out there who would be good candidates to fill them. In the years ahead, Crites hopes to multiply the good done by Clean Slate.
“I like to say that we are a hidden asset, and we don’t want to be hidden,” she said. “We want to be available.”
Give a hand
Clean Slate is looking for businesses, individuals and organizations to join the Clean Slate Investment Circle, a group whose members should commit to donating $1,000 per year. Clean Slate is hoping to find 30 such donors whose help would mean that staff time focuses less on securing donations and more on helping the women.
But donations of all amounts are welcome, and there are other ways to get involved as well, including employing Clean Slate women to clean a space, joining the board of directors — it currently has nine members — volunteering to teach classes, helping drive the women where they need to go or donating household items, for starters.
A full list of ways to help and needed items, as well as a donation link, are online at www.cleanslatecoalition.org/get-involved.