Transitional housing facility for non-violent offenders aims to open by end of year
By Matt Nagle
Just off of South Tacoma Way, a one-story, red brick building sat looking rather plain and unremarkable. It used to be a dental office, and for years it remained vacant and untouched. The lawn slowly died, paint peeled from the exterior and the structure became an unnoticed fixture in the neighborhood such that passers-by were likely to never even really notice it.
Then something wonderful happened. Touched by love and embraced by prayer, this lonely building was reborn into HOPE House and after years of preparation, it is now ready and waiting to open and get to work changing lives.
HOPE House is a place where men just getting out of prison will be given an opportunity for a new lease on life. Set up to house six non-violent offenders together, it will be a temporary home for men often forgotten by their families and lacking the skills to reintegrate into the community. Through a range of services and programs, HOPE House will guide these men to a better life of self-improvement, offering case management, education, job skills development, cognitive therapies to develop responsible and productive thinking, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, employment and housing assistance, parenting skills enhancement, family support services and more.
HOPE House was developed by the Washington Conference of Seventh-day Adventist in partnership with the broader community. When the dentist who previously owned the building donated it to the church, the seed was planted to create a transitional house for formerly incarcerated men. This is where the local Adventist Prison Ministries Fellowship comes in, headed up by its vice-president Janeen Babas, who is on the HOPE House fundraising committee, and HOPE House board member Dan Houser, who is chaplain for the ministries. Focusing their spiritual work at McNeil Island Special Commitment Center, Houser, Babas and the ministries team saw first-hand the depth of need for HOPE House.
“Working inside the prisons, you see the need for something for these guys when they get out,” Babas said. “Most of them lose their support when they go to prison – their families desert them and they lose all of their resources. In fact, the recidivism rate is so high because they have little support when they get out.”
“A lot of them grow up in dysfunctional homes,” Houser said. “They don’t know what love means or what it looks like – they don’t get that insight. That’s what we’re hoping to build – empowering them through love and encouragement to see what a healthy relationship looks like.”
Babas agreed. “It’s incredible how these men respond to people coming in from the outside. A lot of them don’t get visits or letters. Even just a handshake and human touch – they lack that in there. Their physical needs are met at a minimum level, but none of their emotional needs are being met, in my opinion.”
Accountability will be big at HOPE House, which includes a nightly curfew for those without a job schedule to keep, responsibilities to maintain the living space inside and out like cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, and the expectation to find solid employment, as the men will also be required to pay for their keep.
“It helps them to have some accountability while also having some support,” as Babas explained. “It’s important for these guys to not just have a free ride. They have to have structure, love and support. We know that positive influence provides positive results.”
Initially, there were some concerns expressed by the local community over having a transitional house nearby, but those concerns soon faded.
“There are a lot of community leaders who have had experiences in their lives that caused them to not want us to be here, but over time we were able to show them what we have and they were impressed with the amount of detail we’ve put into this,” Janeen said. “Not just the building – the plans for the program, the accountability pieces, having a house manager and all of these other things.”
HOPE House operating committee chair Nelson Miles was essential in working with community members. “We work with the prisoners while they’re inside; what do we do when they come out? This building is the perfect place,” he said. “We’ve taken all the right steps, and now it’s time to open it up.”
There are no other houses like HOPE House in the Seventh-day Adventist system. “That’s why it’s so vitally important that it’s successful because we want to do more,” Babas said. “And we’re the only one in the North American division that has attempted this, so a lot of eyes are watching the project.”
SWEAT EQUITY PAYS OFF
To get HOPE House in shape, the board members and other volunteers spent countless weekends rolling up their sleeves and putting in the labor – painting, drywall, remodeling rooms, installing fixtures, flooring and new windows… All of the work that the HOPE House team puts into the house is on a volunteer basis. The results are amazing to behold.
Inside, everything in HOPE House is sparkling clean and new, all done through donations. Much obvious attention was given to the interior design and details, down to each bedroom having a color theme and the beds covered by a quilt hand made by ladies of the church. A dazzling crystal light fixture that Janeen crafted hangs in the front entryway, serving as a beacon of light for men who have been wandering in darkness for a long time.
“We really wanted these men to have their individualized space. Otherwise, it’s kind of like prison,” she said of the neat and tidy bedrooms, each complete with its own sink thanks to the former dentistry that took place there.
There are several bathrooms and showers, all ADA compliant, a library and computer rooms, full kitchen and laundry facilities, and a general purpose living room to gather for house meetings or just to hang out. Living together will help the men with coping skills, boundary setting, interpersonal and social skills in general.
“We’re not just opening up a house and letting it run wild,” Dan said. A house manager will help keep things together, and no sex offenders or those with any violent offenses will be allowed as residents. Men who have gone through the Adventist Prison Ministries program will be given priority consideration.
“We’re trying to keep it as much like a home setting as possible. They should have every resource they need here to live comfortably but not so comfortably that they don’t want to leave,” according to Babas. “It’s our goal that the men will graduate out of here within a year. That is the timeline that we’d like the men to be successful and ready to move out on their own. It’s designed to transition them into society and that also frees up beds for the next set of residents.”
THE PRODIGAL SON
Houser and Babas, who are brother and sister, have a very special story to tell about their own lives concerning a fall and redemption. It gives them first-hand knowledge of what the men at McNeil Island are going through and illustrates why they have committed themselves to their core to help these wayward souls.
Growing up in what Houser describes as a dysfunctional home, he ran away when he was 15 years old. He ended up going to prison in 2005, having not seen or spoken to his family in more than 10 years. He put in a request for Monroe State Prison, “but God had different plans and sent me to McNeil,” he said. “God sent me to prison and saved my life.”
For the first few weeks that he was at McNeil, others kept telling him that he really needed to check out the Adventist Prison Ministry program. He wasn’t too interested, but finally decided to go and see what it was all about.
“I walked around the corner and there was my sister, brother-in-law, my step dad and mom and I saw mom just fall apart.”
Houser had no idea that it was they who were running the ministry and Babas didn’t know he was at McNeil or that he was in prison at all. “I didn’t know he was there until he walked through the door. We hadn’t seen him in many years,” she said. “And he didn’t want anything to do with God before he went to prison.”
Their mom, Helen Lewis, was to give a sermon that night, and she did just that despite the shock of finding her son again. Lewis was one of the founders of the Adventist Prison Ministries program 27 years ago. She passed away in 2016, but not before giving HOPE House its name.
“Mom knew that without hope, what do you have? Take away hope and there is nothing. If you can provide hope to people, it’s amazing what they can do,” Houser said. “She named it HOPE House for the hope that you will have a better life through Christ Jesus and that you can be successful in the outside world. I understand what hope brings because there wasn’t much hope in my childhood.”
When he was released from prison, Houser entered transitional housing with full support of his family.
“We felt like he needed to go to the (transitional) house and show that he was going to do the right things, but we were active with him the whole time. He did great,” his sister said.
For Houser, “I learned some great lessons in life: What you focus on is what you become.”
Today, Houser is a chemical dependency counselor, which he will bring to HOPE House. Just like his family was there for him, now he will be there helping those who don’t have that safety net when they get out of prison.
THE FINAL HURDLE
The HOPE House board is determined to open the facility by the end of this year – it’s just going to take some fundraising to get there in order for the house to be self-sufficient and lasting, which, of course, includes having funds on hand to pay the bills and taxes in the months ahead.
“What we want to make sure doesn’t happen is that we open and then have to close because we don’t have the financial backing to keep it open. That would be worse than not opening at all,” Babas said. “We also don’t want to make it so expensive for the residents that it’s challenging for them. We want this to be something they learn from, that they understand there are responsibilities in, but that they are still getting a substantial amount of financial support as well.”
“A building block, not a road block,” as Houser put it.
Babas said that faith will play a key role. “God is good and we know that he’ll provide. There’s that element of faith that we’ll have to have, but having faith, that God will provide, is huge.”
To learn more about HOPE House, and to make a donation of any amount, visit https://hopehouseoftacoma.com or call (253) 681-6034.