A halfway house to help women who have been released from jail after serving time for minor offenses or other “life challenges” is opening in Sylva.
The transitional housing, called Clean Slate, will serve women from Jackson, Haywood, Swain and Macon counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The group hopes at some point to open a second halfway house in Franklin.
Timing on the Sylva house’s opening comes as REACH, the anti-domestic violence coalition in Jackson County, has been forced to let its transitional housing for women go into foreclosure, raising questions about the funding for — and the financial sustainability of — Clean Slate.
Organizer Alice Mason said unlike the funding secured to pay for the REACH village, however, Clean Slate is the result of individual donations and money given by a variety of faith-based organizations. The REACH village, by contrast, is a $1.1 million project paid for through federal and state loans, which the agency has been unable to pay.
Last week, the Clean Slate coalition (11 people on this day) gathered at the house in Sylva to develop bylaws, discuss liability insurance and take care of other opening details. The group is now screening applicants for the house, a two-floor, multi-bedroom structure which, when fully fixed up, could shelter up to 11 women.
“This could really help fill a need in the community,” coalition member Kristy Case said of the project.
Case, as housing coordinator for the southern region of Smoky Mountain Center, knows firsthand the difficulties of finding shelter and transitional housing for women and others in need. Smoky Mountain Center is the state agency tasked with helping those with mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse issues in North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties.
Even individuals without the stigmas of having served jail time are struggling in this poor economy to find jobs and housing, Case said, much less women with criminal records or other issues Clean Slate plans to help.
The overarching hope of Clean Slate is to reduce recidivism (habitual relapse into criminal behavior) and addictive behavior.
Women accepted into Clean Slate will pay rent, coalition member Terri Sanger emphasized. The women will be encouraged, and helped, to find jobs. Additionally, Southwestern Community College’s campus is located fairly close to the house (the coalition asked that the location not be identified for safety reasons).
Like Case, Sanger became involved because she saw a direct tie to the work she does: Sanger is the More at Four director for Smart Start Region A Partnership for Children.
“Most of these women have children, and I’m concerned about those children,” Sanger said.
Children will not live at the house, but parenting skills will be taught to mothers there who need assistance. Other classes, too, will be offered, Mason said, and women who participate in Clean Slate will be required to commit to a program designed to “help them accomplish their dreams and goals and to become a contributing member of their community.”
The Rev. Mason, deacon of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cullowhee, became interested in creating transitional housing for women who have served time after she began work as a chaplain in Jackson County’s jail.
“Many of the women, after their discharge, had to return back to the same destructive environment they had come from,” Mason wrote in a story she penned about the genesis of Clean Slate. “Others wanted desperately to begin new lives, to find employment and a peaceful place to live. After their release, always with no discharge planning, and usually with no warning, some called on me for advice and help in finding a place to live.”
Frustrated by her inability to fully help these women who seemed so sincere in their desires to live different lives than before, Mason began work to build a coalition and open Clean Slate.
Clean Slate is currently in search of a house mother to oversee the house at night. There is no pay, but rent will be free and eventually a stipend might be offered. Additionally, a multitude of volunteer opportunities are available, such as helping with tutoring, entertainment or general support in areas in which you are trained and proficient. Possibilities are: teaching computer skills, keeping a budget, checkbook and credit card management, preparing a resume, cooking, crafts and so on.
Help is also needed to transport women to and from self-improvement classes, Al-Anon and AA meetings, doctors and dentists. Work groups will be formed, too, to help with fundraising and marketing, and more.