From the outside, the Mission House for Women looks like any other house in this quiet southeast Raleigh middle-class neighborhood. The yard is neat and raked, the gray paint on the two-story bungalow is weathered, but clean, bushes are trimmed, the grass is cut. But inside the house, this family is anything but normal.
Seven women of varying ages live here. In the mornings, they can be seen catching cabs, or more likely walking out to the bus stop on New Bern Avenue. Then, early every evening, they drag in. Saturdays, they'll be in the yard and on Sundays, they amble out to rides taking them to various churches. From the outside, it may look like a house full of girlfriends sharing the chores of communal living, but for these women, the daily routine of work and home-life is something they haven't experienced in decades.
Mission House is an urban refuge for female drug addicts, most fresh out of prison. They're here to follow a strict regime designed to help them become drug-free, productive citizens. In this home, they get no slack or sympathy. They'll earn respect, or leave.
"Whose clothes are those all over the laundry room?" Gloria Lowe bellows so that no one in the house can miss her question. Lowe is the founder and executive director of Mission House. She's also the live-in house manager, and she will be heard.
Nearly 6 feet tall, with her hair piled high on her head, Lowe is loud and hard to miss. She's a model for the residents, having been through her own transformation more than 10 years ago. Lowe is both a hard-ass housemother and a caring friend--and it shows in her tone and her temperament.
Yolanda Randon, a tall, black 42-year-old woman still wearing her Golden Corral name tag, slowly moves to the laundry room and silently begins moving clothes and shoes into baskets and piles. She knows it's her day for laundry and so does everyone else. The chores list is posted prominently on the wall. The other five women, all black, of varying ages and sizes, continue fixing the dinner they will share, as they do every night about 6. They're tired and frustrated with the daily grind. They grouse noisily about job interviews they hope went well or the long wait at the bus stop.
Lowe banters and chides the women as they carry the dishes to the dining room table.
"Would you rather be back where you were?" she asks, raising her eyebrows and cocking her head in the look--the look that says, "Uh-huh, I know you. You ain't had it so good in a long time, sister. Now you want to say that again?"
Esteree Bristol, her dark eyes surrounded by even darker circles, has been in the Mission House a week and has just landed a job today. She's angry that employers can't see past her prison record to the training and classes she took while she was incarcerated. Her brown hair is straight and pushed back on her head. She wears baggy jeans and an oversized shirt on her heavy-set frame and moves slowly off the sofa.
"I see why people go back to stealing and selling drugs," Bristol says. "I've gotten a lot of certificates, I just need someone to give me a chance." She'll be working as an aide in a nursing home, a place many of these women start.
Bristol did time for assault on a man she said was abusing her, and Randon came from a work farm where she spent time for drug possession. They join the ranks of 70 women who have lived at Mission House since its founding in 1997.
The transition home fills a void in the criminal justice system that is sorely needed. Still, places like Mission House remain overlooked, under-funded and misunderstood. The state hasn't bothered to study how well places like Mission House are working, preferring instead to fund an ever-expanding prison system.
What's known is this: Mission House helps potential re-offenders kick drugs and make a better life for themselves, and their families. It's also a good deal for taxpayers who won't have to foot the $23,000-a-year bill for one person's stay in prison, or the thousands of dollars spent on drug treatment and intervention.
Cynthia Fort swears by the program. It's been two weeks since she moved out of Mission House, but she still comes by most evenings to grab a few hugs and talk privately with Lowe. Fort wants to be an inspiration for the other gals, none of whom has more than 90 days clean.
After two years at the house, Fort is in her own apartment and says she's prepared to stay sober and out of trouble. "I was nervous about moving out," she says. "But it was time. I want to prove I can do it and let other women know that if I can do it, they can too." Her long, clear, fake fingernails belie the hard work she does polishing bathroom fixtures each day at her factory job. A small silver cross hangs around her neck on a dainty silver chain. She smiles and waves as she runs out the door of Mission House, her ride, and her new boyfriend, waiting outside. But her life wasn't always this pretty.
Mission house graduate
For the first time in 28 years, Fort is free--free of drugs, free from prison and free from debilitating fear and anger that has run her life. "I was so afraid all the time; I didn't want anyone to know how I felt; I wouldn't talk to anyone ever. I had so many facades. I still cry when I talk about my past, but at least now I talk about it."
Surrounded by large comforting pillows on the sofa in her new apartment, Fort is alternately tense and relaxed. Prison and the streets are behind her now, but the memories are always near.
At age 12, Fort was brutally raped and sodomized by three neighborhood boys. "We used to play a game called Wolfman," she says as her bright, hazel eyes moisten. Stoically, she relives that hot summer day in Brooklyn. "It was like hide and seek, and at first I thought it was part of the game when they dragged me out." She was hiding in a dumpster when they found her, like they always did. But this time, they weren't playing. "They beat me. They sodomized me. They stuck sticks inside me."
They changed her life forever.
Growing up in Brooklyn with a father who ran a numbers racket wasn't so bad. He made good money and gave Fort, her sister and two brothers everything they needed. Her parents argued a lot, though, and Fort learned to control the fights by pretending to be sick and drawing attention to herself. "I had asthma and I would run out to the street and just fall out, and they would stop and run out to me."
After the rape, she told, and the boys went to detention. But her mother started drinking heavily to assuage her own grief and had little left for Cynthia. "My mom sent me to counseling, but they wanted me to relive the experience. It was too painful. I had to stop thinking about it. I found gangs and drugs and drinking worked better. My mom's drinking got worse, my dad left, then my sister left." She had three surgeries and was told she would never have children.
Her older sister had a baby and lived with Fort and her mother. One evening her sister left to go get a bullion cube, a loaf of bread and Kool-Aid. "She didn't come back for four years." Fort remembers every detail of that night. The betrayal was now complete--her father and sister were gone, her mother had escaped to the bottle and her friends had hurt her.
Her father once told her to always keep her head up, so, coupled with the added false confidence from drugs, Fort became arrogant and aggressive. Her mother moved with her children to be near family in North Carolina. But Fort couldn't stand being around her mother's constant grief, so at 17, she quit high school and got married. She defied the doctors by giving birth to twin boys. A heavy drinker by now, she started having flashbacks about the rape. Therapy and medication helped to a point. Then she met cocaine.
"My husband had a cousin who wanted a place to cook it up," she says. "The kids were out with their grandparents, so he came over and asked me if I want to try it. It gave me relief."
She left her husband and started dating. "I was attracted to men who sold dope," she says. "I had learned how to cook it and was able to do that for them. Now, with crack they don't have to know that, it's easier."
One night at a party, a man was bothering her by touching and playing with her. As she stood to leave, he grabbed her vagina. Fort went into a blind rage she barely remembers. As she retells the story, sheer blue hatred is visible in her eyes. She grabbed a bottle and hit him over and over. She left the party, bought a bottle of wine and went home. The next thing she knew, the police were at her door. She was charged with assault and as a first offender, put on probation.
"I was always running from the memories," she says, flushed with anger. Alcohol usually worked to quiet her mind, but pot made her paranoid. Cocaine, and finally crack, proved to be her favorite escape route. Still, at times, even that wouldn't blot out the nightmares.
Life kept getting harder. She had car wrecks and DWI violations, she was writing bad checks and leaving her kids with her mother. She was hospitalized and went to drug rehab programs. But, with no relief from her abuse, she remained angry and scared.
"One night, I couldn't sleep. The dope wouldn't work. So I went out and stepped out on the street in front of a moving car," she says. "It stopped, the car just stopped." Her eyes widen as she recalls what seems in retrospect like a miracle.
Then, two years after her first assault charge, Fort was at party when another man touched her when she didn't want to be touched. "By then, I fought all the time," she says. "I didn't think twice about it. I was so angry I couldn't think. I grabbed a glass ashtray and hit him in the face." He brought charges, and she went to prison for two years.
Fort was scared to go to "the big house," but now she laughs about her preconceptions. "I thought the women would all be tough and would rape me like I'd seen in movies. It wasn't like that at all. Most of them are scared too or they try to help." Still she kept to herself and got close to some of the chaplains who brought a ministry into the jail. She started to believe in God while locked up, but knew it would be hard to sustain that faith on the outside. She applied to and was accepted at a Christian halfway house a few months before her February 2000 release date.
Fort glows when talking about the relief she was feeling about having a place to go. She wanted to change and knew she needed some help. But four days before she was set to go, the house called and cancelled her reservation.
That's when Gloria Lowe got a call and went to visit Fort for an interview. As she recalls that first meeting and how nervous she was, Fort smokes her Newport down to the filter. It was the first of a series of encounters with Lowe, who welcomed Fort on the day of her release.
It was a cold day in February when Fort was dropped off at Mission House. All the other women were off at work, so the house was empty. Fort was nervous about meeting the other women, so she steeled herself for their return that evening.
"I'm a loner and don't like to take orders," she says. "But Gloria told me that we were all like that, that addicts have that in common and that we were all here to get better." As the women drifted in from work that day, Fort joined them for dinner. It didn't take long for her to get with the program.
She met with drug counselors and confided in other women at the home. She learned how to interview for a job and to manage her money. After two years at Mission House, after lots of long talks and many tears, she emerged a new woman.
Today, she's 40 years old. She's been drug free for four years now. Her hair is in cornrows and long braids tied at the ends with light brown beads; her dark bronze skin is glowing with health. She's dressed in a long denim skirt and vest, on a flowered sofa in her Edenton Street apartment. The small space between her two front teeth adds to the girlish look she gets when she smiles.
She's calmer today, she laughs as she takes a call from a friend who will pick her up later for a meeting. She opens her back door to show off the renovations going on in her downtown neighborhood. She's got a day off from work and will be looking for more furniture to decorate her meticulously adorned apartment.
It took five tries before she found an apartment manager willing to rent to someone with a record. "It's tough all over if you're an ex-con," Fort says, a little sad, then adds, "If someone believes in you, it makes all the difference. If I hadn't gone to Mission House, I wouldn't be here today."
Creating second chances
It was the early 1980s and Lowe was locked up for drug possession. She started seeing a visiting minister who prophesied to her that she would one day help women just like herself. "I didn't pay too much attention at the time," Lowe says. "I was in my own addiction then." In 1991, after another stint in jail, Lowe moved to a transitional housing program and began working in a variety of jobs in the treatment field. She began her recovery then and has been drug and alcohol free since '91. She volunteered at a homeless shelter and for Wake County Mental Health. Her dream began to crystallize during this time and in 1997, she drafted a vision statement for Mission House and incorporated in December 1997.
Her determination to fund her pet project won over some local religious and treatment leaders who couldn't help but appreciate her persistence. Lowe used her savings and bought the home on King Charles Avenue that is Mission House. She talked to friends and ministers who offered to help with startup funding. First on her list of supporters were Fairmont United Methodist Church, United Methodist Church, Glorious Christian and St. Ambrose Episcopal Church. Prison officials in the DART program told her they would send candidates her way.
Herbert Poole says one after another, women arrive ex-cons and leave productive citizens. He's been the Mission House treasurer for four years. A retired teacher and coach in the Raleigh school system, Poole met Lowe at a Raleigh/Wake Citizens Association meeting.
"She just came up and asked me to be treasurer," Poole says. "I think this place gives the women hope. You know, somewhere along the line all of us have had a second chance."
Sam Boone volunteers as a credit counselor. The owner of Structure Group, he's been talking to some of the women about their credit and what it will take to get them into a house of their own. "Everyone makes a mistake," Boone says. "And these women are more motivated than the average person. They've hit bottom and aren't afraid to ask for help. They're already at the lowest place you can be." He helps the women write and stick to a budget.
To meet her annual $164,000 budget, Lowe receives grants from Wake County, the City of Raleigh, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, The Warner Foundation, the Triangle Community Foundation and the Junior League of Raleigh.
Her efforts are getting noticed. In 2001, Lowe received the Raleigh mayor's award for outstanding nonprofit contribution to the community.
To keep contributions flowing into Mission House, Lowe must maintain a constant search for funding. At the same time, more agencies are turning to Mission House looking to place ex-cons.
Referrals to Mission House come from the DART program, the Wake County Re-entry program, the sheriff's office, Butner prison facility, Alcohol Treatment Center, judges and attorneys. The longer she stays around, the more people get to know Lowe and the work she is doing, the more referral sources find her. There are so few places for women to go to ease the transition from institution to society, Lowe always has a waiting list of at least 40.
In Fayetteville, where Lowe hopes to open another Mission House, there are scores of women who transition out of prison directly to their old neighborhoods and old habits.
Unlike the half-dozen women who call Mission House home, these ex-cons aren't offered a positive living environment with a shot at re-hab. There's no money for them, until they re-offend, and wind up back in prison.
She who must be obeyed
Beyond the therapy and the abstinent environment of Mission House, there's Lowe the woman, whose job requires the discipline of a drill sergeant and the clairvoyance of a mind reader. She knows exactly how to keep her residents on the straight and narrow.
"She sees right through us," Fort says. "Gloria is a very hard person. She believes in what she's doing. If she was a soft person, I wouldn't have stayed. She made me the person I'm meant to be."
Lowe is clearly not afraid to tell the women at Mission House what's on her mind. "I don't see any use in enabling anyone anymore," Lowe says. "They have had enough of that and it never helped and never will."
Of the women who stayed at the Mission House over the last four years, 60 are still employed, and only three have returned to prison. Lowe has invested her life savings and her whole heart into Mission House.
"I don't feel like my life was wasted," she says in one of her quiet, reflective moments. "Everybody needs help, and here I think we can offer hope too. I know it's working because out of the 70 who have been through here, I could get at least 50 on the phone right now."
"It's hard sometimes," she says. An ex-smoker, Lowe gestures in the air to make her points. "They all think they got it licked after just a few weeks. But we don't fool around here. They can stick to the rules or get out."
Lowe has a deep, hearty laugh. She shakes her head in disbelief when the women try to bamboozle her, especially when it comes to her first rule: no men.
"They usually hate that one and try to convince me that they can handle it," she says. "A lot of women who come here have domestic violence issues. And men can be a distraction. They have to see why they continue to be in those kinds of relationships. They need a break. They need time to heal."
The women can only work first shift jobs because they must be in the house by 6 p.m. each evening to make and share dinner with each other. Classes such as parenting, anger management, credit counseling and computer training are scheduled most nights. "They need to learn to set priorities," Lowe says. "Life is not a big party. And most of these women are night-people. They have to change that too."
Just as Lowe has found herself back in church, she expects her "girls" to find a Sunday service. "I don't care where they go, as long as they go somewhere," she says. "I learned, and they have to too, that without a higher power, they don't have a chance."
A day in the life
It's nearly 7 p.m., and the house smells of recently cooked fried chicken. Six women shuffle in to the small dining room alcove for a required parenting class. The table is clean, all the dishes are done and put away. Fresh red linen napkins are placed at each seat. Lowe's award from the mayor's office is planted in the center of the table, alongside an arrangement of pink and blue silk flowers in a wicker basket. The walls show signs of wear as the paint is cracked in a few places. The women are weary. They've worked all day, ridden buses all over the city and are close to the edge.
A large pantry is filled with canned food and soup. An extra refrigerator is in the narrow laundry room off the kitchen. There are two bathrooms in the house, which the women share on a schedule that seems to work. The two-story house has five bedrooms. Gloria stays in one of the rooms on the first floor, another bedroom off the front room is turned into a small office. The walls are lined with plaques and certificates that Lowe has been collecting since starting the house. She has a computer, printer, fax and phone that rarely stops ringing.
"It's always something," Lowe says. "If it isn't something about one of the women, it's other people wanting advice on how to start a house of their own."
In the living room, a glass coffee table sits in the middle between two sofas. "This room isn't used much," says Yolanda Randon. "I come in here often to just get away from others." For a loner, privacy is a rare commodity in this place.
A parenting class is about to start and the women take their places around the dining room table.
"We start where we are at, with what we have," Roenitia Steward, a contract services trainer, tells the women who must listen to her class for the next hour.
This statement irks Cynthia Barnes who is restless and frustrated. She wiggles in her chair, her annoyance with Steward's words evident in her deep frown. "And it ain't gonna change overnight, so stop throwing things at me about how I got to change," she snaps at the instructor and puts her head down, tears running into her arms. It doesn't take much these days to set her off. But she can't get up and leave, this is a required activity and Barnes knows that she must follow the rules or she'll find herself back on the streets. She hangs in there tonight.
Eventually, Steward gets the women laughing and involved. The hour passes quickly as they discuss the pitfalls and the hard times of parenting.
The family room beside the dining alcove is paneled in wood and lined with nine donated computers. A comfortable pink and gray sofa, chair and love seat are set in a semi-circle, where a few of the ladies plop after the parenting session. An entertainment center holds a television, stereo and VCR. A bulletin board displays a list of designated chores, and religious sayings. A homemade sign reads "My Condition is Not My Conclusion."
After the class, the women move outside to smoke around the patio table set up out back. "I've been using so long, I can't remember when I started," says Randon. The others nod in understanding. "Beer, reefer, crack, you name it." Every day has its ups and downs for Randon who misses her four children who are spread out between family and foster care. Randon isn't sure of her future. She thinks she'd like to become a drug counselor. She doesn't smile much, except when showing off pictures of her children.
Barnes hasn't sat still since the parenting class ended. She's joined the women outside. Everyone is eager to tell their stories, to have someone listen. They don't brag, they just can't seem to get enough of talking to anyone who seems to care.
Barnes is 37 and has an 18-year-old daughter. She looks 18 herself. She has a small diamond stud in her nose, and hair that hangs across her thin face and is tied back in a pony tail. She's wearing a big red T-shirt and jeans. Her furry blue slippered feet bounce and shake as she talks. "I'm hyper," she says.
Ninety days clean, Barnes hopes her hard times will end at Mission House.
"I started hanging out with a fast group in Brooklyn," Barnes says, her Newport cigarette dangling from her long, thin fingers. "I got busted trafficking cocaine." Her eyes change as she talks, from excitement at recalling the fast life, to anger and confusion at the memory of how she ended up here, among the poor and destitute, a place she now calls home.
Barnes knew Gloria Lowe a long time ago and believes maybe now she's come full-circle. Barnes and Lowe got clean together in 1991 in jail, but with Barnes it didn't stick. She remembers Lowe talking about the minister who prophesied Lowe's future. But Barnes liked the fast life--she even modeled at one point. The walls in her half of her bedroom are lined with glamour shots of herself.
In the mid-1990s, she moved to Winston-Salem in hopes of finding a job, and getting her son back from her family who had taken him away. "A job wasn't good enough for me," she says dismally. "I liked the fast life with men and drugs and money. But I knew I was going to get busted again--or worse." She heard about Mission House and looked up her old buddy to ask for help.
Barnes is thinking about getting married as soon as she gets out. She wants a stable environment, she says as she lights another Newport, and somebody to take care of her. "I want to stay clean," she says. "It's different though. I'm not used to people telling me what to do."
She fights with Gloria often. She says she's found a higher power, "even though I curse him a lot."
"She's crazy," Gloria says part jokingly, part seriously of her old buddy. "But then aren't we all--just a little?"
Let's get real
Lowe is realistic. She knows that these women need a lot of help, just like she did. She knows it's not an easy transition from a life of drugs and prison to a stable, working, sometimes boring existence. The struggle of surviving, coupled with a two-ton monkey on your back, can be too much for anyone to handle, even if they're provided with a positive living space like Mission House. That's why Lowe continues to reinforce her work with a network of outside professionals.
Dr. Denis Lewandowski is a mild-mannered, bearded psychologist who works with the parole commission and is on a retainer with Mission House for four hours a week. Lewandowski believes there is plenty wrong with the criminal justice system, and that's why he wants to join Lowe in her fight.
"We tell them [addicts] to stop and if they don't we punish them," Lewandowski says. "That's not effective; it's a long process."
He says that the biggest problem with the system is that addicts are asked to take too big of a leap--from prison back to society. "It's hard to understand how big of a step leaving prison is unless you've been there," he says. He sees the value, first-hand, of the positive effects a place like Mission House can have in that transition. "I admire someone who is willing to take on this task of rehabilitation after digging such a deep hole. In most cases, they've done irreparable damage and they have a lack of resources to help."
At Mission House, Lewandowski deals mainly with crisis, of which there is never a lack. "Almost inevitably these are women who have been sexual victims," he says. Cynthia Fort, says Lewandowski, was able to listen to her fears and anger toward men and define the difference between who she was and who she can become. Nightmares and flashbacks no longer plague her like they used to. She understands now that her addiction led her to those kinds of men and that her childhood trauma is over and doesn't have to rule her life. It is in people like Fort that Lewandowski finds his reward.
"Recovery is hard," Lewandowski says. "Here in Mission House, the ladies have to be willing to submit to a high degree of structure, maybe more than in prison."
But they have a better chance of staying clean and out of trouble if they can agree to the rules, learn to get along with all the different personalities in the house and do everything that is asked of them.
"Recidivism is a tremendous problem in the justice system," he adds. To him, Mission House's success is evident. The women keep in touch with the house after they leave to help those coming behind them. Lewandowski says these women beat the odds.
The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission performs a study every two years for the General Assembly on recidivism. The only study in the state, it is general and not broken up by gender, race or crime. Karen Jones, a senior research and policy associate for the commission, says that the study follows people released from prison for two years. And the proportion who are re-arrested in that time is 42.6 percent.
She said that she would love to see more detailed reports on the effects of treatment and transition support on those numbers, but doesn't expect it anytime soon. "It's very difficult to follow releases," she says. "We are only a small staff with a narrow mandate." She says studies have been performed with the Employment Security Commission, which show that employment alone does not have an effect on recidivism.
That's not news to Lowe, who wishes the state would place more value on programs like hers.
"You can't take a lifetime of using and living in the fast lane and expect to turn that around in a day, a week, or even years," Lowe says. "It's a long process and you need a lot of tools to make it."
The length of stay at Mission House varies from six months to two years. Rent at the house is $85 a week and includes room and board, and covers all the classes that are brought in. (The rest of the costs are covered with donations and grants.)
Most who stay for the shorter period are mothers with children who are waiting for them. They often transition to other houses that can take families such as New Beginnings and Passage Homes, which put up families in apartments as they work to get their lives back together.
Others have never held regular jobs and need a lot of training or education. Some have warrants and issues with the courts. Many have few social skills. Cynthia Fort had always held a job, but had no idea of how to save. She spent the full two years allowed at Mission House, giving her time to save the $2,000 it took to settle into her new digs.
She positively glows when she surveys her new apartment. "All of this I bought on my own, only a few things were given to me," she says, wiping down a counter in her small, airy kitchen. There are not many pictures on the walls, yet. Fussing with a silk plant on the glass coffee table in the center of her living room, Fort offers to move some of the overstuffed cushions that fill the wrap-around sofa. She sits comfortably, serving tea in tall matching glasses, and rises only to open the curtains and let in the light.