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September 1, 2004 - SNITCH: Savannah (US Web)

The Sky's The Limit

Savannah Woman Helps Former Female Inmates

By Bill Eagles, Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Gale "Sky" Edeawo wants to tell you a story. The moral is one person can make a difference, especially in their own life.

Edeawo has written for a number of magazines and newspapers and is a storyteller for the city's Homeless Authority. She's also a longtime community activist.

"I like doing things where I'm helping people," explained Edeawo, a former Los Angeles resident who moved to Savannah six years ago.

Edeawo was working with at-risk youth through her writing program and was struck by the pain, anger and love they expressed. "My God, they were just babies," she recalled.

Through her work with these troubled youngsters, Edeawo decided to go to the core of the problem and find out what's going on with the mothers. The fathers, she noted, were often not involved in the children's lives.

She learned that many of the mothers of the at-risk youth were in jail or on drugs. Upon their release, they often didn't have a place to live - a foundation upon which they could build or rebuild a life for themselves and their children. Facing such daunting challenges, they often returned to the streets and crime. A return to jail was almost inevitable. Edeawo said the recidivism rate among these women could be as high as 65 percent.

Determined to break the cycle of homelessness and jail and bring families back together, Edeawo started Project Welcome Home three years ago. Her goal is to find temporary housing for released female inmates as they return to society. She actively works with eight women and stays in touch with a total of 20.

One Life To Live

Joyce Johnson is one of these women.

Johnson, 35, is thoughtful and well-spoken. She's a single mother of five, ranging in age from 2 to 16, who works at a fast-food restaurant for slightly more than minimum wage and lives with her parents. Her efforts to make a better life for herself and her children are hindered by her past - six convictions for shoplifting.

Johnson worked odd jobs as a teen-ager and went to college for several years, but eventually fell into shoplifting. "I relied on shoplifting for everything - to support my family and myself," Johnson explained. "I knew it was fast money."

It also was a fast ticket to jail. From the age of 18 until several months ago, Johnson served six prison sentences, ranging from four months to two years. After her third arrest, Johnson was classified a felon. "If I stole a stick of gum after that," Johnson said, "it would be considered a felony."

Her latest sentence ended June 9.

The cycle remained the same: Without any transitional place to learn life and career skills following her release from jail, Johnson returned to the streets and shoplifting and, ultimately, prison. Other than an occasional class on HIV, the inmates did not receive any advice on how to return to society and learn such important skills as how to interview for a job. A typical day in jail, she noted, consisted of watching TV, arguing over which programs to watch and waiting for one's court date.

"They just threw you back into society," Johnson said. "They said, 'We don't want to see you back here.' That's the cycle." The return to society is fraught with challenges. For the next seven years, Johnson has to pay her probation officer $30 a month. That money, she said, could instead go toward groceries and detergent, for example. Getting her own place is difficult, and it goes beyond coming up with the deposit and first month's rent. Among the first things generally checked are credit and background. "I have no credit and a bad background," Johnson said. Outside assistance is hard to come by as well. In early August, Johnson checked on subsidized housing and was told she didn't meet any of the following criteria, since she was not HIV positive, an active drug user or mentally challenged.

The vicious cycle of the streets to prison likely would have continued for Johnson if she hadn't been put in touch with Edeawo six weeks ago. Her godbrother, who is serving time in prison, suggested she call Edeawo. The two women have joined to become outspoken in the need for transitional housing for women. Johnson, noting all the people who have houses that are just sitting there, asks why one of those can't be used as a transitional home for women getting out of prison. If such a place existed, Johnson said, she wouldn't have gone back and forth to jail so many times.

Ironically, such a place could come from a former female inmate.

Supporting A Second Chance

Carolyn Scott, 48, is a lifetime Garden City resident. Married at 16, she had three children before getting a divorce. Although she had a GED and attended the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) for two years, Scott became involved with drugs while working off and on. She was arrested for drug possession for the first time in 1990. Over the next 14 years, she would serve three sentences for drug possession, including crack cocaine. She met Edeawo earlier this year, when the latter was giving a class at the jail, and has remained in touch since her release in February.

"It was great hearing her talk and coming to the jail," Scott said. "She offered support and encouragement."

Scott lives with her daughter in East Savannah, but owns a house in her old Garden City neighborhood that her father gave her. Although plagued by health problems that include a bad back and removal of a disc, limiting her ability to work as a housekeeper and in restaurants, Scott shares Johnson's determination not to return to prison. "My grandchildren don't want to see me in there," said Scott, who has seven grandchildren. "I'm getting older. I need some way to take care of myself, but I don't have the heart to steal."

Through her experiences and talking with Edeawo, Scott saw the need for a transitional home for former female inmates. Her house on Sixth Street would be perfect, she said, offering a refuge from the streets and a place where up to four women could learn to become productive members of society. Saying this was a way to give back to her neighborhood, an optimistic Scott contacted a state agency and offered to lease the place to them for $1 a year. It was basically a freebie - an offer the agency couldn't refuse.

But it did. Recently, the agency contacted Scott and told her it was not interested in leasing her place as a transitional home for women. She said she never got an explanation. "I was flabbergasted," Scott said. "It was a letdown."

Edeawo was equally taken aback by the decision, saying she was hurt and angry. "I don't like to let my ladies down," she said.

Edeawo and Scott aren't about to give up. Scott has maintained her close neighborhood ties and is going to the community and neighborhood for help in fixing up her place and turning it into a transitional home for women released from jail. Her goal is to have some sort of plan in place by the middle of next year.

Despite the obstacles they face, Scott and Johnson are among the more fortunate of the estimated 190 women released from jail each month in Chatham County. They have families to provide housing and other support. Many of the women, Edeawo said, have nowhere to go and live in their cars. Others don't even have that luxury and walk along Hwy. 17 when they're released from jail. Waiting for them are drug dealers and pimps, according to Johnson. "They know the women are coming along there and they're waiting for them," Johnson said. "They get picked up. That's all they know."

Edeawo said she's received plenty of positive comments. "They'd say, 'Great idea. God bless you,'" Edeawo recalled. They were less inclined to take a page from Edeawo's book and put their words into action, however. She said she's passed on information to a number of churches, specifically the possibility of sponsoring a former female inmate, but has yet to hear back from any of them. "They're not interested in helping," Edeawo said. "It's a non-caring attitude. Savannah is a troubled community. I don't know. Maybe I'm not running into the right people."

Number One Fan

One person who is in Edeawo's corner is Craig Cashman, executive director of the city's Homeless Authority, which coordinates all of Savannah's homeless services.

Cashman referred to Edeawo as probably the best advocate he's ever seen. He cited her passion for helping former female inmates.

Cashman shares Edeawo's frustration at the lack of services for women who are trying to return to society after being incarcerated. Although these women get some coordinating assistance through his agency, Cashman said, there's not funding for such things as transitional housing. Furthermore, there's a double standard placed on them. "Women transitioning out of prison are not looked favorably upon by society," Cashman said. "They don't receive a lot of sympathy from society."

Cashman hopes to help change that. He met with Edeawo and members of various agencies last month to discuss transitional housing for families and women.

In the meantime, Edeawo will remain an advocate for a segment of society often overlooked and forgotten. In many instances, she's the lone person they can come to for encouragement and support.

"It's all I want to do," Edeawo said. "Life is so rewarding when you can make a difference. Change needs to be made. In the meantime, I'll live off my credit card and a line of credit."

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