Coming back into society out of a cycle of incarceration or addiction isn’t something easily done alone. According to most modern research, it requires support and a roof over one’s head, a slew of transitional services that, in many communities, is a missing part of the housing equation.
After years of dreaming and several years of planning, Opportunities, Alternatives And Resources of Tompkins County – a local inmate advocacy organization – is building what they hope will serve toward filling at least part of this gap at 626 West Buffalo Street, working to turn an old apartment house into a place where former inmates and addicts can rebuild their lives in an environment built for success.
On Saturday, a small group of volunteers were on the property picking up brush and beginning renovations on the house which, in the coming months, will soon be not only a sober home to four transitioning individuals, but additional office space for the organization’s various advocacy efforts and a 17’ by 30’ community “clubhouse” to be used for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, OAR’s college-prep programming and a number of other services needed to help people in need break the cycle of dependency and delinquency.
The home, which will be funded through $60,000 in county housing funds and OAR’s own, modest coffers, will be open and operating sometime this year, depending on when the work gets done.
“I’ve been waiting years for this,” OAR’s director, Deborah Dietrich, said, smiling amidst the flurry of activity around her. “We’ve been seeing how the lack of stable housing, substandard housing, is a huge barrier to turning your life around. And we’ve known that for almost a decade. So finally we’ll see if taking away that barrier makes for more success.”
For the past five years, Dietrich has been traveling from seminar to seminar, compiling the best concepts from transitional housing programs from around the country in an effort to create the image of what she pictures the ideal home to be. With the help of volunteer Frank Brittain – whose background in drug counseling is extensive – the organization will develop a suite of individualized programming to create an on-the-ground, one-on-one approach to reentry, offering opportunities either to train for a job or go back to school all while overcoming their personal issues in a safe, sober environment free of the negative influence of life on the streets.
“This is a ‘create community’ reentry program,” Brittain said. “...the program is based around personal discipline and self-intention. It’s intended to make sure you’re making these changes for yourself. The concept is to take people from a cycle of treatment centers to the streets to the jail, to find what those people are missing in their lives that keeps them from a comfortable life, and identify the skills they need and help them build those up.”
The home will be fully-staffed, a venue not just for the individual growth of those four individuals but also for the greater community, helping to guide those looking to break their own cycles. It’s a modest start, and though the neighbors have been spoken to and Dietrich plans to host monthly meetings over desert between residents and the neighborhood to fully immerse the home into the community, she acknowledges that this bold first step is one carrying some degree of uncertainty, and will likely be tweaked as time goes on.
“I think it’s an experiment,” said Dietrich. “We’re minimizing risk the best way we can.”
“We’re trying to make sure this isn’t separate from the community. It’s an idealistic, dreamer’s notion sure, but we’ll see how it works.”