The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday heard important updates on the progress of the Diane Wade House — an Afrocentric, transitional housing program for adult women involved in the criminal justice system.
The home is the first of its kind in Multnomah County and an important step toward addressing the disparately high number of African Americans in the local criminal justice system.
It is also one of several jail reduction strategies as part of county and nationwide efforts to break the costly cycle of incarceration which disproportionately affects people of color and low-level offenders, particularly those struggling with addiction and/or mental illness.
The home will officially launch in late January, with a soft opening set for December.
“We know how important this program is going to be and the impact it will have on the lives of women in our community,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We know there continue to be racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, and there hasn’t been anything quite like this with a focus on African American women.”
Tuesday, presenters from Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC), Department of Community Justice, and local nonprofit Bridges to Change, which will operate the transitional home, described their detailed and humbling work on the program. That work included listening sessions and significant input from African American women whose lives have intersected with the criminal justice system.
“It’s been a real honor to have hard conversations about Oregon, gentrification, race, racism, oppression and really doing things differently,” said Abbey Stamp, executive director of LPSCC, “and allowing policymakers to slow down and engage with community voice and understanding that this is really critical to the success of this work.”
The Diane Wade House will be staffed by women of color with “lived experience” in the justice system. It will be located in Gresham, intentionally close to the county’s Department of Community Justice Women and Family Services unit, which is a primary support system for women on parole or probation.
The home will also serve as a day center offering mentoring services, coordinated case management, and curriculum specifically tailored for African American women.
“The in-house curriculum is very culturally specific to clients we’re looking forward to serving,” said O’Nesha Cochran, program supervisor at Bridges to Change. “And everyone on my staff who has been a part of developing the curriculum wishes they would have had this when they were receiving programming of this kind when in recovery.”
Referrals for the program will be based on whether participants are African American, their history of trauma, substance use and/or mental health, and their risk to re-offend in the community, said John McVay, a senior manager at the Department of Community Justice.
Referrals are also geared toward diverting potential participants from jail, McVay said. Program staff will work closely with County Mental Health and Addiction Services to identify women who may be in jail and unable to aid and assist in their own defense.
“Right now, some women who are on aid and assist simply can't be released from jail because there’s not a safe place for them to go — so this will provide an option,” McVay said.
The Diane Wade House takes its name from late parole and probation officer Diane Wade. Wade worked with adults in Multnomah County from May 1999 until she passed away in October 2010. Most of her work was with women of color as a lead parole and probation officer with the Department of Community Justice’s African American Program as well as with the Gang Unit.
Cochran, from Bridges to Change, knew Wade as her parole and probation officer and mentor when she transitioned back into the community after prison. Wade fostered relationships and a mindset to overcome obstacles and build a new foundation, Cochran said. Diane Wade House staff have embraced those values.
“It’s like a rumble of excitement in the Black community,” said Cochran. “Our staff have been diligent in talking to women living on the street, going to Transition Projects, going to the Greyhound Bus Station and talking to mothers who have lost their children and getting them prepared for this program that is being developed for them by the community.”
The program is funded by a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. As part of community-involvement requests from both the MacArthur Foundation and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, community members will continue to provide feedback for the program.
“This is, right now, completely funded by the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant that we were provided,” said Stamp, who described the Safety and Justice Challenge as “an initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jail.”
“Every time I’m before you,” she told the commissioners, “I want to use the MacArthur tagline because it really nails down the work we are trying to accomplish.”
To measure the program’s success, Stamp said, officials will review not only quantitative outcomes that include decreased jail use and increased social services use, but also seek qualitative data, asking questions like “Were your needs met through these services?”
“I am personally really invested in making sure this succeeds,” Kafoury said. “And I want to thank the women who have turned out today to talk about this and show their support and involvement.
I think you are all the reason this is going to be so successful.”