Learning To Be Free: Reno’s Ridge House
BY MICHAEL KEATING
Ridge House grew out of the Kairos movement in Nevada, in which people of faith went into the prison system and held intensive, weekend-long sessions with inmates. These sessions emphasized the power of faith, the importance of asserting self-control, and the necessity of taking responsibility for oneself.
Friendships inevitably formed as folks returned again and again to the prisons. And as offenders were released or paroled with no place to go, the members of this faith communitymost associated with First United Methodist Church in Renotook them into their homes or housed them in their garages or basements. It was well-intentioned but unsustainable.
Ridge House is the organized, faith-based response that evolved to help this very vulnerable population. “Many of the men and women we work with were incarcerated before there were cell phones. Some even before there were computers,” Executive Director Steven Burt said. “They are returning to a very changed world.” And a world often stripped of familiar faces, community support, or even a recognizable community. Ridge House tries to fill that gap.
The original house on Ridge Street long ago collided with a developer’s wrecking ball. But in 1982 church members worked, studied, and developed programs to address the multiple needs of released and paroled inmates. Testament to their success is the fact that Ridge House is the longest-running reentry program in Nevada.
It’s a mature if financially challenged program today. Funding comes from a complement of private, local, and state agencies and indirectly from HUD, SAMSHA, and the VA. In addition to an office building that houses its headquarters and its thrift shop (which sells to the public while outfitting released inmates for free), it runs five houses for the recently released. Women live together at a comfortable house in the Huffaker Hills neighborhood. The four other residences house men. At one big rambling housethe Vine Street Housethe occupants are all veterans.
Vine Street runs through a handsome older neighborhood. The house is just a block from the Truckee River, whose redevelopment is Reno’s proudest urban success. Although one might suspect that a solidly middle-class neighborhood might solidly oppose a house for formerly incarcerated veterans, that hasn’t been the case.
“There’s been no NIMBY [not-in-my-back-yard] issue with any of the houses,” Burt said. He attributes that to good, slow, and careful planning. Ridge House has established a reputation, and Reno is a city small enough that a reputation matters. The houses are cared for and maintained. Each is run as a residence whose tenants are responsible housekeepers and neighbors.
In addition, potential residents are interviewed and screened before they are released. “We knew our limitations,” said former Board Chair Michael Clymer, “and we wanted to make sure the client was compatible with our program.”
After a one-on-one interview, candidates are evaluated. Someincluding sex offenders and those involved in multiple violent crimesare automatically disqualified and never make it to the interview stage.
The program goals are fairly specific: to provide “released prisoners with a safe environment while they learn the life skills and discipline necessary to succeed in the outside world.” Ridge House seeks to teach offenders how to change their behavior patterns so that those in the program and those in the community can live better and safer lives. It’s a multilayered approach that seeks to restore spiritual and emotional health while providing life skills.
But for those involved in the program, it’s an opportunity that has a quick expiration date. Most stay for a maximum of ninety days. For veterans, there’s more time, with some remaining as long as eight months.
The longer period for veterans is a reflection of two things: the availability of VA funding and the greater complications faced by veterans. PTSD and diseases associated with the Vietnam War, especially from exposure to Agent Orange, can seriously complicate a formerly incarcerated veteran’s efforts to readjust to the outside world.
At the same time, military service and time in prison also will have inculcated discipline, an ease with institutional life, and the ability to accommodate many types of people. Often, too, those with drug or alcohol problems have had a long time to dry out. Many of those coming into Ridge House “have been cleaned out by prison,” Burt said.
But the Vine Street Houselike all the program’s facilitiesdelicately pulls its residents away from institutional life. There are no bunk beds and no dormitories. Quite intentionally, Vine Street offers its veterans family-style living. At most, two men share a bedroom. There’s a central living room and a communal kitchen. Perhaps best of all, there’s a picnic table and chairs under the big trees out front. On warm, dry Reno summer mornings and evenings, the men gather there to swap gossip and compare notes.
Sometimes, the amenities change to suit the people living there. The veterans at the Vine Street House have a fine garden. And Mauldin House in the barrio across town once had a sweat lodge to accommodate Native American residents.
While providing a temporary safe haven, the Ridge House program also insists upon intensive intervention. Men and women enrolled in the program must actively seek employment. In fact, they must find a job. And they must work to improve their skills to improve their chances to become better employed.
In addition, those with histories of drug or alcohol problemsand that’s most of themmust be involved in an AA, NA, or similar program. Actively involved.
Most importantly, perhaps, Ridge House has developed a mentoring program, staffed in part by people from Kairos and in part by men and women who have already been through the penal system. Mentors help to keep residents on track and avoid pitfalls. The world has changed since they were imprisoned. So it’s easy to slip into emotional blind alleys, social confusion, or just self-deception.
Each of the five houses in the program has a full-time, live-in house manager. “We’ve found,” Executive Director Burt said, “that the best house managers are former convicts.” They can anticipate problems before they arise. They already know, for example, that former prisoners tend to hoard goods and overeat. They are all too familiar with these and other predictable behavior patterns.
The program also includes several full-time counselors. “Semper Gumby has been our motto: Whatever it takes. We’re just doing what we know is the right thing,” Burt said. “Now we’re best practices, according to the Report of the Reentry Council.”
For Michael Faulstich, who succeeded VVA’s Veterans Incarcerated Chair TP Hubert as president of Ridge House, the power behind the program is clear: “We are committed to helping what the Bible calls ‘the least of these.’ ”
But clarity is not always an attribute of the recently released. They stand on the brink of a new world, both familiar and unfamiliar. Too often they fall into homelessness. And too often, unable to navigate the outside world, they fall back into crime and become entangled again in the criminal justice system.
Without help, it’s a scary place to be.
“Freedom,” remarked one resident-veteran of the Vine Street House. “That was the hardest thing to get used to. It took at least a month just to stop prison mode and to feel freedom.”
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