Sioux City Multicultural Neighborhood Project
Clare Guest House was begun as an initiative of the Sioux City Multicultural Neighborhood Project (SCMNP) which was a special ministry in Sioux City authorized by the legislative body of the Sisters of Sr. Francis of Dubuque at their Chapter meeting in 1998. Its mission was to "promote racial justice and alternatives to violence, respond especially to the needs of poor women and children, and collaborate with others in the development of neighborhood communities." In 2005 the team was made up of Sisters Shirley Waidschmitt, Mary Lee Cox, and Grace Ann Witte. One of the 2005 Goals of the SCMNP was to "initiate the planning and support the implementation of a halfway house for women coming out of prison." Included in the 2005 application for funds from the Sisters of St. Francis Ministry Fund to support the work of the SCMNP was a request for $250 to support this goal. The total application was accepted for funding.
Research by the team revealed that women leaving prison are more marginalized from society than male prisoners and have a more difficult time finding employment. In addition to the stress of reentering society and finding employment as a felon and "ex-con," women frequently are overwhelmed by the added stress of immediately assuming the responsibilities of children, family, and household. This is a major explanation for high recidivism rates. Studies show that persons who receive structure and support during the first six months after release from incarceration have a lower recidivism rate. Mandatory sentences and longer minimum sentences were created as part of the United States' "War on Crime," resulting in prison overcrowding and a reduction in non-custodial educational and treatment services, despite the fact that most women in prison have been abused and many suffer from substance addiction.
The percentage of women in U.S. state and federal prisons has risen at a faster rate than the rate for men and is, today, at the highest percentage since 1926 when this statistic was first recorded. The European Union has about the same number of women as are in the U.S., but the U.S. has ten times more women in prison. The U.S. has five times as many women as England has, but we have more than 20 times as many women prisoners. Another significant fact is that between 60 and 70 percent of women inmates in the U.S. have children under 18.
About 40 percent of the women in prison have been convicted of drug offenses, one-third for possession but not for selling drugs. Because their involvement is typically more marginal (being in the same place where drugs are confiscated can constitute "possession"), they generally know less about drug operations than men and cannot bargain information for a reduced plea or a reduced sentence. Thus their sentences are disproportionately longer than men's sentences.
In April of 2005 the SCMNP team presented their ideas to several Sioux City social service agencies and were encouraged to pursue them. In May the team prepared a timeline of activities including a trip to the Iowa Women's Correctional Institution (IWCI) in Mitchellville, a review of possible locations for the house, preparation of a budget, and identification of possible sources of funding. The team also explored the possibility of a special relationship with Catholic Charities, but after discussion, this was not pursued.
The trip to IWCI in Mitchellville revealed that the median age of the women inmates there is 35 years, with an ethnic composition on that day of 410 Caucasians, 149 African Americans, 16 Native Americans, 15 Hispanics, and 3 Asians. From 70 to 80 percent have minor children, and 65 to 75 percent are the primary caregivers of their children. The average stay is eleven months. Fifty percent are repeat offenders. Many suffer from low self-esteem. Most are poor and have few family resources. When leaving IWCI, whether on parole or after finishing their sentence, the women are given by the prison a bus ticket to their destination, $100, their belongings, and a thirty-day supply of any of their medications. Few women coming out of prison are able to pay for conventional housing, and there is a year's wait for Section 8 housing. There is no other transitional housing dedicated to women coming out of prison in northwest Iowa. The need for a place like Clare Guest House seemed evident.
In June of 2005 the SCMNP team developed a philosophy for the house, identified the type of women they would serve, drafted rules for the house and staffing plans, all of which they presented to pertinent community leaders at an informational meeting in July. A small group of women agreed to continue to meet as an advisory group, colloquially described as the "Wise Women," to further finalize plans.
On July 28, the SCMNP team submitted a grant application to the Sisters of St. Francis Ministry Fund for $20,000 to begin Clare Guest House; the grant was approved for 2005-06. A five-bedroom house which had been a residential treatment facility for teenage girls (but vacant for about five years) was rented from the Boys and Girls Home agency on August 18, and preparation of the house for guests began in earnest. Most of the work was done by volunteers, and most of the furnishings were donated. The house is located at 1918 Douglas Street, near the downtown area of Sioux City, near a bus route, in a culturally mixed neighborhood with Hispanic, Vietnamese, African American and Caucasian families; some of the homes are owneroccupied and some are rental properties. Efforts were made to acquaint the more immediate neighbors with the nature and purpose of Clare Guest House before the first guests arrived.
Clare Guest House is staffed by an experienced live-in Director, Sister Gwen Hennessey, who arrived on September 27, 2005. She is a Franciscan sister whose non-violent protests against war and violence had eventually resulted in a federal prison sentence some years ago. The house was formally blessed on November 2, 2005. The first guest arrived on December 12, 2005.
In November of 2006, Clare Guest House was incorporated as a separate and independent organization, distinct from the Sioux City Multicultural Neighborhood Project and from the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa. The Board of Directors meets bi-monthly and consists of experienced members of our wider community. The Board has dealt with such matters as banking decisions, insurance coverage, occupancy rates, and a personnel manual. Clare Guest House achieved official status as a charitable non-profit organization in 2008.
The Rules of the House which were finalized in September, 2005 and are updated periodically as needed. They are included in the application for admission, and the applicant must sign that she understands and accepts them. The remainder of the application asks for demographic information, health and medical information, some financial disclosure, an explicit statement of goals and future plans, a list of three references, and a signed release for confidential information from the sending facility.
The primary source of referrals to Clare Guest House has been the Iowa Women's Correctional Institution in Mitchellville. It serves the entire state of Iowa, but guests have typically come from the Third Judicial District (the 16 counties in Northwest Iowa) and are designated for intensive supervision by the local Department of Corrections. Clare Guest House works closely with these local parole officers whose Residential Treatment Facility has only five beds for women and typically has a long waiting list. Clare Guest House adds up to seven additional beds. Though women coming out of prison may meet the homeless criteria of the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, they may not be welcome in other shelters which are unfamiliar with their background and needs.
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