One Woman's Quest To Help Others Find Housing And Stay Clean

By Kelly Burch 08/28/17

After surviving some harrowing life experiences, Burton decided to make it her life's work to help other people in her former position.

Image: 
Activist Susan Burton
Activist Susan Burton Photo via Encore.org

When Susan Burton got out of jail after serving time for drug charges, she had $200 and a bus ticket to Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row, an area of the city known for drug use and homelessness. 

“I got caught back up in the underworld because the upperworld really doesn’t have a place for people with criminal histories,” Burton said in an interview with USA Today. She ended up back in jail on drug possession charges yet again.

“I went back because I needed help and help wasn’t available,” Burton said. “I needed support to understand the grief, the trauma and my lifetime of pain.” 

The second time around, she got the help she needed. After prison she was able to go to rehab in Santa Monica, California, where she realized that she and other marginalized women needed resources to break the cycles of addiction and incarceration. 

“I couldn’t understand—and I still don’t understand—why these resources are so plentiful in some communities, and in (minority) communities we lack these types of resources,” Burton said. “Our community could be healthier. Our community can be resourced—trauma centers, therapy centers, treatment centers, housing—just access to making our communities healthier.”

While Burton was in rehab, she thought about the ways that she could help provide resources for her community—especially for the one-quarter of women who return to jail within six months of being released. One way, Burton realized, would be to provide housing. The next year, in 1998, Burton put her plan into action, returning to Skid Row and approaching a woman who had just gotten off the bus from prison, just as she had years before. 

"I have a house if you’d like to come there,” she told the woman. “It’s drug and alcohol free and you can have a bed there.” 

Burton didn’t ask for rent, she only required that the women stay sober and focus on getting back on their feet after jail. The simple but profound move was the first step Burton took toward establishing her non-profit, A New Way of Life. The organization now has five houses that are used to help formerly incarcerated women transition back to life on the outside. A New Way of Life also provides much-needed resources, like support for women who want to regain custody of their children. 

"Because a woman goes to prison doesn’t mean she’s a bad mom," Burton said. “Doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have her children.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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