Before the winter holidays, we spent some time with Regina Diamond-Rodriguez, who was there at the “birth” of FORTE House and has supported its progress right through to today. Regina is currently the Mountainview Community Director of Transition for Rutgers University. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
I met Tia [Ryans] when I was overseeing a course in which Tia was enrolled at Rutgers-Newark; it was focused on the barriers that re-entry [following incarceration] brings to the college experience. Students, working in groups, had to design an improvement within a current system or structure, or create something new to minimize these barriers.
In class discussions, housing emerged as a glaring need. There’s a lack of affordable housing across the state, but it’s especially acute for those in re-entry. Limits, restrictions—for example, more than two people on parole are typically not permitted to live together unless there is a pre-approved housing arrangement, like FORTE House. Even if there isn’t a “box” on the application form asking if you’ve been convicted of a crime, landlords can ask for credit history, or information on your last place of residence. Unless you can live with family, it’s very challenging to secure housing, and a lack of housing makes succeeding in college almost impossible.
Tia’s group took that on with the design of FORTE House. They had different ideas about budgets, the kind of programming to include, so it wasn’t exactly like the current FORTE House, and they didn’t have that name for it. But it was definitely the structure and framework.
Toward the end of the course, we have each group present to an audience of people who are interested in the same focus area—professors, leaders of nonprofits, sometimes people in local government. And members of the audience ask questions, suggest further direction, and they’re always supportive. But the response to Tia’s group proposal—and she was clearly the leader—was more, “Let’s bring this to fruition.” I don’t remember ever seeing the kind of response she received.
Tia invited others in the group to work with her on making it happen, but no one else chose to continue working on the project. They may have had other things they wanted to pursue, or they didn’t want to invest the time and hard work in a concept that wasn’t yet proven. So Tia said, “Fine, I’ll do it on my own.” It’s taken some time, but Tia has put every ounce of herself, all of her blood, sweat and tears, into making it happen. She went on to win an award through RU- Flourishing as seed money to move the project forward.
Tia called me in May, around the time of the opening, to let me know she was accepting referrals. Now, people are on the waiting list.
I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is for someone to have that kind of security. It’s not only affordable housing, it’s also the support the residents can get. Like tutoring, which our students really need now that they can’t get onto campus for help.
That’s a key thing to know: FORTE House isn’t just housing. Many people, especially those who’ve been incarcerated for a long time, are released with no reliable network of support. Family members have moved or died; some people have children who’ve grown up and hardly know them. And the world has changed, too: technology is the obvious example but there are cultural changes, sometimes the landscape of the neighborhood has changed. It is hard to navigate all that.
Our students typically begin their course work inside, and they transition to one of the colleges or universities—like Rutgers—to complete their degrees. I know from our data that students don’t make it if they don’t embrace a community mind, and community interaction. That’s what we try to create within the campus, and what FORTE House is providing too.
Some students don’t want to be identified with a community based on the shared experience of prison. They want to “do it on their own.” These are the people who don’t graduate, and most of them cannot get permanent jobs. That’s about 20% to 30% of our students. The people who participate in supportive re-entry programs offered through the school and through organizations like FORTE House—they’re the 80% who complete their degrees and either find employment or enroll in graduate school. The other 20%, those who isolate, typically re-incarcerate.
FORTE House builds social support through community. In fact, it operates very much like a family home. You have a group of people sharing space, having to get along, negotiate responsibilities like chores, and respect each other. They have a shared past experience that binds them. And they get the social support in the House that’s essential to successful re-entry.
I think about it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy: At the bottom, you have basic needs like food and water, and the ability to sleep—which relates to shelter. Once those needs are met, humans need safety, and then above that is, belonging, and so on. And at the top is self-actualization. What FORTE House does is take care of those basic needs—shelter, food, and the next level of safety—and then moves up into areas like belonging. That allows students to fulfill higher needs, like self-esteem and, finally self-actualization. It allows people to reach their full potential.
I would love to see it grow. Right now, it’s serving 10 people, but this is a replicable model that works. FORTE House is filling a huge need; it provides a linear path for people going through re-entry to complete their education and move on to employment and a fulfilling life. It provides critical re-entry support. I’d like to see it move to other states next. It needs to grow.