Topeka Sam has always been good at connecting people to opportunity – that skill landed her in prison on drug conspiracy charges, but it also led to a new life connecting formerly incarcerated women to second chances. That’s the vision of Hope House NYC, a five bedroom home in the Bronx neighborhood of Castle Hill that seeks to plug women back into society and to help set them up for future success.
“Now I use my powers for good and not evil,” Topeka Sam told VICE Impact with a laugh. “It’s about understanding the skill set you have and using that to change the world. Often [for those convicted of a crime] those skills were underdeveloped or misdirected.”
Hope House is meant to be a safe place for women to live for a year while they adjust to life outside of prison. With light-filled bedrooms decorated with inspiring art, and two communal kitchens where everyone can gather for meals, it’s supposed to feel like home.
“How can someone plan her next move when she’s really scared about where she’s living?” asked Sam. “People even think of going back to the environment that felt safer [prison].”
“Women on state parole can’t fraternize, supervise, or be around other people with a conviction. This is antiquated and outdated. If I’ve been through an experience and I succeeded, wouldn’t I be the best person to help guide someone else going through it?”
Sam first hatched her idea while she was still in prison, where she met Vanee Sykes, a partner in Hope House NYC. Her faith became integral to her recovery, and after she was released, that continued to drive her. She met leaders of faith communities across the country, as well as others devoted to empowering women and girls. Activist and author Susan Burton became a mentor and friend. Burton, who operates five houses for formerly incarcerated women in California, provided the seed money for Hope House.
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The landlord, Cheryl Selby, lived in Castle Hill in the Bronx for nine years. She liked living there, and takes pride in her property. Newly renovated with granite countertops and hardwood floors, she saw no reason that Hope House shouldn’t make its home there.
“It’s for anyone who wants to live decently,” Selby told VICE Impact. “When Topeka Sam came to me, she was transparent. She said this is my home and I want to share it with people having hardship. I thought that was fair. I don’t know who lives in my neighbors’ homes.”
However there are members of the community who have spoken out against Hope House, including longtime resident Doni Walker Santiago, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It changes the complexion and character of our neighborhood,” he said.
To those neighbors, Selby says, “People have a right to have questions, but [Sam] has tried to answer these questions. I’ve heard people say they don’t want a shelter, they don’t want people who have been arrested. They think people who get arrested are those who make the same mistake over and over. I don’t agree with that. I think recidivism occurs because people don’t have chances.”
In addition to providing housing, Hope House connects women to a network of other people who understand what they’re going through. This very asset has proven to be a roadblock, however, to Hope House’s ability to achieve its vision.
“Women on state parole can’t fraternize, supervise, or be around other people with a conviction,” said Sam. “This is antiquated and outdated. If I’ve been through an experience and I succeeded, wouldn’t I be the best person to help guide someone else going through it?”
“When you walk out that door, you know the faces you left behind. We need to provide a platform for our sisters.”
Sam is working to get this rule overturned in New York state so that formerly incarcerated women can help each other through their transition. She says that, when you emerge from years in prison, there’s a lot to process. If no one around you has any way of understanding what you’re working through, it will be a lot harder.
“I don’t know anyone who could act like it never happened,” said Sam. “When you walk out that door, you know the faces you left behind. We need to provide a platform for our sisters.”
Currently, just three women are living in Hope House, even though the house could accommodate eight. Others who have been accepted haven’t been allowed to move in because, as reported in the Times, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision called the house “not suitable for parolees.”
"A lot of us weren’t ever empowered to say no or speak up, even related to our crimes themselves. To use your voice to serve other people? There’s nothing more fulfilling.”
Sam and her colleagues keep organizing and attending community meetings, trying to turn hearts and minds away from the “not in my backyard” mentality, and speaking with local politicians and parole boards to try to change the rules for formerly incarcerated people. She finds strength in her faith, and believes that her service work is its own reward.
“It’s empowering to stand up for something,” said Sam. “A lot of us weren’t ever empowered to say no or speak up, even related to our crimes themselves. To use your voice to serve other people? There’s nothing more fulfilling.”
You can sign the open letter to the community or join in Hope House's advocacy by calling local politicians, chiefs of probation, and parole departments to let them know the outdated rules regarding formerly incarcerated people coming together should be revised.