Formerly Incarcerated Woman Builds Hope in the Bronx

Screenshot from hopehouse.nyc

When Topeka K. Sam came home after being imprisoned for three years, she knew her transition would be uncomfortable but fairly easy.

“Back in prison I realized I would have a house to go to. I had my parents, which was a safe space for me,” said Sam, who was released from the Federal Correction Institution in Danbury, Connecticut two years ago.

“For me, it wasn’t the most ideal because I was being released at 40,” she said of going back to living with her parents in Harlem, New York.

“It was a little stressful in many ways.”

But she knew that others weren’t so fortunate. While still incarcerated, she had a vision to help her fellow “sisters,” who may not have such a strong support system.

That vision will be realized later this month, when Hope House, transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women located in a quiet section of the Bronx has an Oct. 28 open house and formal opening.

Hope House is the housing arm of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, Sam’s initiative to provide many resources for formerly incarcerated women.

“During my journey, I noticed after speaking to my sisters and finding out what brought them to incarceration and what they had coming home, that a lot of people were being released with less support than I [had].”

A new report from John Jay Prisoner Reentry Institute highlights the difficulties people face when attempting to obtain affordable housing with a criminal record. According to the report:

“Private housing typically requires credit checks, prior landlord references, and hefty deposits, putting it out of reach for people with criminal justice histories, who may be without a job or savings, have no credit history or bad credit, and who are facing stiff payments for criminal justice fines and fees.”

Since being released, Sam hit the ground running to bring her plans to provide support and housing to fruition.

She’s received fellowships from organizations such as Beyond the Bars and the Open Society Foundations, as well as being named a Justice in Education Scholar at Columbia University.

Sam is also a member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. More commonly known as The National Council.

The National Council gave her the boost of support to make her dreams of opening a transitional home a reality.

“Through The National Council I was told to meet with Susan Burton who had been doing houses for [formerly incarcerated] women in California for some 20 years,” said Sam.

Susan Burton is a member of The National Council and the Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project based in Los Angeles, California. She is also a formerly incarcerated woman.

“She really wanted to see a network of safe housing spaces around the country,” Sam said.

Through guidance and mentorship, Sam was able to follow Burton’s blueprint of creating transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women.

Besides stable housing, Sam plans on providing a variety of programs and services, including career training and advocacy for women being released from prison.

“We’re going to be having a Speaker’s Bureau. Teaching women to speak and political education. So when they speak they know exactly what they’re talking about,” Sam said.

Hope House is a one-year, transitional home for formerly incarcerated women and girls. Those who apply will go through an assessment and interview process, and will need to provide references before they can don the official title of “House Guest.”

While there are plans for providing spaces for women and their children, Hope House will cater to single women and girls.

“We decided to focus on single women first,” Sam said.

“There are housing opportunities mostly for women with children but not many for women without.”