You can read the full version of our March Newsletter here.

A Place To Call Home: Housing and Recovery
“When one door closes, another door opens.”

You’ve heard the saying a thousand times. Unfortunately, it isn’t always true, and it can be especially difficult to find new opportunities when the door closing behind you is that of a jail cell. Freedom from incarceration rarely means complete autonomy. Many former inmates struggle to find safe and stable housing, which can lead to life on the streets and eventually another lockup…

Where Do I Go From Here?

We often, wrongly, think of jail/prison as an adequate rehabilitation center. Someone breaks a law, gets put away, and by the end of their sentence they have learned their lesson and leave to rejoin society a changed person, with a better life ahead of them. It is important, however, to look at crime not as wrongdoing for the sake of wrongdoing, an evil that one must repent. Oftentimes, what we refer to as “crime” is born out of a struggle to survive. When asked about leaving prison, many of our residents reported that they had nowhere to go but the unsafe environments they had occupied previously, that they knew they would end up back in prison, and that they had their only path to shelter was through drugs and sex. A lot of former inmates, however, don’t even have that option.

Formerly incarcerated people are almost 7 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, with formerly incarcerated women and people of color experiencing homelessness at higher rates. This rate also increases to 13% for those who have been incarcerated more than once. In the year prior to prison, 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness.

There are a number of causes at work here, from outright discrimination in housing (research shows many landlords show bias towards tenants with a criminal record) to application requirements such as credit checks and professional references which can be difficult to attain if one has been out of society/the job market for a period of time. The problem is also complicated, however, by the criminalization of poverty and homelessness and a lack of affordable housing in general.

The State of Housing in Arkansas

Arkansas is the fifth poorest state in the United States, with a poverty rate of about 16.2% and 18% of residents living below the poverty line. Nearly 35% of Arkansans are also renters. Six years ago, VICE News released a condemning report: “Arkansas: The Worst Place to Rent in America”. One of the main reasons they cite for this claim is the complicated renter-tenant laws that exist in the state. Arkansas, after all, is the only state where you can be prosecuted, fined, and jailed for not paying rent on time. This is because Arkansas allows tenants to be criminally charged rather than simply civilly charged. Evictions can lead to charges and jail time. What this results in is a criminalization of poverty itself and a situation wherein not being able to afford rent can land a previous offender back behind bars.

Aside from harsh rental laws, Arkansas is also experiencing the same affordable housing crisis that we’re seeing throughout the United States: a shortage of affordable housing available to Extremely Low Income (ELI) individuals and households. An individual or household is considered Extremely Low Income if 30% or more of their monthly income is spent on housing OR if they fall below the poverty line. Affordable Housing is that which costs below 30% of one’s income. While apartment complexes are being built all the time in Northwest Arkansas, often they are being built with the growing population of college students in mind, and their price tags can cost up to $1500 a month. These properties are often not attainable for those who classify as ELI…Nearly 30% of Arkansans can be classified as ELI. Data shows that 63% of ELI Arkansans are severely cost burdened.

Why Is It So Hard To Develop Affordable Housing?

Currently, federal programs for the development of affordable housing only cover about 30% of the cost; the rest of the money must be collected through private investment. In total, the private sector develops around 70% of affordable housing in the country. While some states like Texas have created tax exemptions to encourage the building of affordable housing complexes, Arkansas isn’t quite there yet.

On December 15, 2020, Magdalene Serenity House expanded with the purchase of a nearby house, intent on giving our residents safe and affordable rental property once they graduate from the program. With rental laws in Arkansas being so biased towards landlords, an increase in the cost of rental properties due to rental properties being designed specifically with college students in mind, discriminatory zoning laws preventing the development of affordable housing complexes in certain areas, a shortage of housing available for Extremely Low Income individuals/households, and the monetary burdens associated with developing affordable housing, we are grateful for the ability to make this leap and believe strongly in its necessity. Not enough affordable housing exists and it is difficult to develop, so we believe it is important for us to help our residents continue on their journey to recovery through helping them meet both their emotional AND material needs.

Housing and Recovery

Recovery takes a lot. It takes time and patience. It takes support and love. It takes courage. But it also takes material and practical conditions like housing and safety being met. It is necessary to have a safe and stable environment in order to recover from addiction and trauma. As our residents have pointed out, a place to call home is more than just walls and a door — it is somewhere where you can feel safe, something you have control over, and a place that you can feel proud of. It is as much an important part of recovery as it is a symbol of how far one has come in their journey towards recovery.

Recognizing the importance of housing in recovery and breaking the cycles of homelessness, poverty, addiction, and sentencing starts with understanding some crimes as the consequence of environment and survival. By removing obstacles to safety and stability and helping people meet their needs, we can break the cycle and help former inmates progress through the recovery process. It must begin with safety. It must begin with security. Only then, when we have a place to call home, can we work towards improving all facets of our lives — from our relationships to our mental health to our ability to be independent.

Hear from our Residents

Question: When you were planning to be released from prison/jail, were you worried about where you were going to go?

“Every single time I was released I knew I’d end up back in because I had no hope. No place to go which meant I was right back to do what I knew to do.”

“I kept leaving prison and going back into the same environment where I had offended previously. I did not have options. I would not have known how to pursue them, had they been presented to me.”

“When being released from the hospital onto the streets, I was like, ‘Here we go again, down the dark road’.”

“When I began planning to be released from jail after two months of jail time, I was so scared of what I would come out to. I lost my car with all my belongings in it. I was back at square one. Homeless, nothing to my name, and lost in a small town away from home. I had no chance but to find my way out.”

Question: How important is it for you to have a space of your own?

When you are stable and structured, it helps with self-worth and especially when you have been without your own space you value everything so much more. It leads to prosperity.”

“It is so important for me to have my own space where I can let my guard down, feel safe, be creative/express myself, feel empowered, feel proud, and take responsibility.”

“I need that space to feel worthy, like I am somebody, and when I don’t have my own space I feel as if I’m a burden and that leads me to depression and suicidal thoughts (meaning I’d be better off dead).”“When I don’t have my own space, I feel as if I’m a burden, and that leads me to depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Help Magdalene provide safe and affordable housing to former residents by donating today!

For more information go to prisonpolicy.org, nlihc.org, opportunityhome.org, and fayettevillehousingauthority.org/

Author: Angelena Pierce, U of A Department of English Graduate Student

How to Support MSH

You can help our residents obtain safe, affordable, supportive housing by donating to our new Aftercare Program. Our goal is to raise $5,000 to complete a much needed renovation in one of the bathrooms. We have a total of FIVE donors who will each match up to the first $1,000 raised. Can you help us meet our goal and transform this bathroom? Donate online or via mail at PO Box 3394 Fayetteville, AR 72702. A big thank you to our matched donors: Hayden McIlroy, Dash Goff, Bill & Connie Clark, Brenda & Bob Gullett, and an anonymous donor!

Program Achievements

  • Our residents and staff remain safe and healthy. All of our staff have been able to be vaccinated. We are grateful to be able to continue serving women who have experienced trauma, addiction, and incarceration.
  • We have another PROGRAM GRADUATE. Raegin has regained full-custody of her 11-year-old daughter and both are happily living independently in Fayetteville. Our program team will continue to provide aftercare support!
  • Sophia, our first graduate and Resident Support Specialist, will celebrate 5 YEARS clean and sober this month.
  • Two resident’s have completed their first 90 days, presented their portfolio and are actively pursuing gainful employment.
  • Want to support our residents? We keep an up-to-date list of current needs on our Amazon Wish List. Check it out today!

Board Member Spotlight

This month we have the distinct pleasure of spotlighting our Board President, Lowell Grisham. Learn more about how Lowell became involved with Magdalene Serenity House below!

In 2013 a lovely young woman who had been part of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s Sunday evening congregation in the Northwest Arkansas Corrections Center finished her sentence and went home. Within the month she was dead from an overdose. She went back to the same place that got her in trouble. Lowell and Suzanne Stoner did her funeral with her brokenhearted family. They left saying, “We’ve got to do something.”

Suzanne found a model that had been working for almost two decades, Magdalene House in Nashville. They went there to learn and sent teams to the workshops. In 2015 they recruited a Board and did all of the structural things to start a new program. The team found a perfect house and location, raised money to buy and renovate it, and welcomed the first residents in 2017.

Lowell says, “You never know when you start dreaming whether something will turn out the way you hope it will. Magdalene Serenity House has exceeded my expectations. I am so grateful for the way this place and program changes lives and heals whole communities.”

Thank you for your dedicated service Lowell. We could not do this work without you!

Happy Social Work Month!

Happy Social Work Month to our three licensed social workers at Magdalene Serenity House. We appreciate your dedication to rebuilding lives and reforming systems that impact women who have experienced trauma, addiction, and incarceration!

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