By CSG Justice Center Staff
Britney Stembridge (left) remembers the moment last year when she took a pen to the dotted line of her Pathfinders contract, where she committed to participate in reentry programming and prioritize her recovery. In January 2017, she had been sentenced to just over 5 months in the Tarrant County, Texas, jail, as a result of a conviction for theft: she had pleaded guilty to stealing her mother’s car to get money for heroin.
After five years of battling addiction, Stembridge said, “I knew I had to do this, because I was losing everything.”
With funding support from a Second Chance Act (SCA) grant, mentors at Pathfinders support women in Tarrant County jail’s Intensive Day Treatment for substance use disorders and continue to mentor participants for an entire year following their release. In addition to one-on-one mentoring and case management support before release, Pathfinders also provides group classes in the jail to build interpersonal skills and help participants prepare for the difficult situations they may encounter back in their communities.
While she was in jail, Stembridge connected weekly with her mentor to discuss the challenges she thought might hinder her successful reentry. Of those challenges, she relayed her most pressing needs for services to her Pathfinders case manager, who worked to research the options that would be available for Stembridge the day she walked out of jail.
Stembridge had a looming problem: when her jail sentence was over, she wouldn’t have a place to live.
“I was so scared,” she remembered. Two of her three children had been placed in the court-ordered custody of Stembridge’s mother, with the third child in foster care. The court ruled that, while the children were living at her mother’s house, Stembridge was not allowed to live with them.
In other words, she said, “when I got out, I couldn’t go home.”
She isn’t alone. Many people who leave prison and jail can face similar difficulties in accessing safe, stable, and affordable housing due to court-ordered conditions and various local eligibility restrictions. Reentry program staff have a critical opportunity to help connect people returning from prison or jail to housing by coordinating with local housing agencies and professionals.
Because Stembridge began exploring short-term housing options early with her Pathfinders mentor and case manager, by the time of her release, Stembridge had a spot waiting for her at a halfway house for women. She moved there in June 2017 and, with confidence in her leadership skills that grew from the Pathfinders group classes, she became house president within a month, a role that requires her to track incoming rent payments and ensure that residents comply with house rules.
“The connections through Pathfinders [are] really what made the difference for me,” Stembridge said. On top of the short-term housing assistance she received, she also credits Pathfinders’ individualized mentoring support with helping her stay on track in recovery.
“Some rehabs are so impersonal,” she said from experience. By adding personal connections to the jail’s treatment program, she said, Pathfinders was the opposite.
In between the rigorous program for participants, “the staff would hang out with us, playing cards, really talking,” Stembridge said. “They make you feel they genuinely care.”
Since leaving jail seven months ago, Stembridge has not reoffended, is now one year sober, and works eight-hour shifts in a local restaurant on most days.
According to an evaluation that tracked Pathfinders’ reentry mentoring program participants in 2014, more than 87 percent of them had no record of arrest in the two years following completion of the program.
Stembridge said she has another big goal left to accomplish: to create a stable living situation not only for herself, but also for her children. With the money she is earning, Stembridge hopes to afford rent on her own apartment by this summer. She has been using continuing sessions with her Pathfinders mentor to sift through bank statements and financial-planning spreadsheets, with an eye toward saving for a deposit on an apartment.
“I’m not as worried about it, perhaps, because I just know [Pathfinders staff] will be by my side,” Stembridge said of the potential difficulties she could face when searching for permanent housing. “Whatever happens, I know where to turn.”
If a March custody hearing goes smoothly, she will then be allowed to have her children to stay at the halfway house for overnight visits. As she continues to take steps toward permanent housing, she remembers a judge’s instruction to her.
“The only requirement the court has for me to have my children back is having transportation and a stable living environment,” she said.
Somewhere along the way, Stembridge said she realized that she didn’t need a paper contract to keep her committed to recovery and progress.
“I used to need to stay sober,” she said. “Now I want to stay sober… And I want to find a place of my own.”