Parolees leaving New York’s prisons were having trouble finding housing, so they took matters into their own hands, with help from the New Beginnings program, which bought a vacant dilapidated dwelling for the formerly incarcerated men renovate.
New Beginnings is a transitional housing program in New York and was created by Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to deal with the reentry issue.
“It was a huge leap…a magnificent leap of faith,” Damian Rossney, project manager for New Beginnings told San Quentin News, referring to the purchase of a run-down single-family home in Ossining, NY, near the notorious Sing Sing prison, and having ex-prisoners carry out the renovation.
Hudson Link has awarded more than 800 college degrees in the New York State prison system during the past 20 years, according to its website. It provided vocational training and reentry services programs for graduating students who have returned home.
“The relationship with our students doesn’t end when they get a degree,” said Rossney, who is also a former prisoner. “By far the biggest transition is when you come home and being able to demonstrate how you’ve changed your life.”
Hudson Link began hiring its former students and increasing services for others, but some were leaving prison only to end up in a homeless shelter.
Rossney paroled to a family that had a support system for his reentry, but he still struggled with the readjustment to society, so this work is personal to him. Rossney went to prison at 18 and came home at age 34.
Hudson Link purchased the single-family home that had remained vacant for seven years. The purchase was made possible with the help of private funders. The home needed to be gutted. Sean Pica, the formerly incarcerated founder and executive director of the organization, was the first to take a sledgehammer to the house interior.
“We believe the future residents of this home, having fulfilled their debts to society, have every right to a second chance,” said Pica.
The reentry home didn’t open without controversy, as some neighborhood parents signed a petition in opposition to the housing plan. The parents cited the house being across the street from a school. Hudson Link reassured parents that sex offenders, who are prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a school, would not be allowed to live in the building.
“The home was empty and dilapidated until these guys came,” said Lisette Marino, a neighbor. “I don’t have any of those same anxieties. I’ve had a completely different experience. They’ve already done a service for the community by rehabilitating this house.”
The home will accommodate up to five people. There is a basement with a bathroom, laundry room and a big open space. The main floor has the living room, dining area, kitchen, front patio and back patio.
The upstairs has bedrooms and two bathrooms. The living room has pocket doors so the men can create private spaces, if they need to meet with family or their parole officer.
“This is not a shelter; this is a family,” Rossney said. “This is a family of five formerly incarcerated people living together.”
One neighbor went so far as putting a security camera on their porch facing the reentry home. Meanwhile, the Hudson Link home has its own camera and security system, Rossney said.
Having launched the reentry housing program, Hudson Link is looking into offering more comprehensive services to assist people leaving prison. This first home for men is going to be a true test to see if the organization can handle housing.
Hudson Link purchased another home about five minutes away to serve women leaving prison. It is expected to open within one year and will have four or five bedrooms.
All residents would be college graduates of Hudson Link program.
“It’s about second chances. That’s what’s ringing in my head right now,” said William Garland, a student of Hudson Link, who helped renovate the home. “It’s about people being in the communities and getting a second chance.
“Also, you have part of society that says no second chances. You have to deal with it,” Garland concluded.
—Freelance writer Emily Nonko contributed to this story.