Halfway house that's all in the family

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HENRY Scurry seems right at home. The wiry, good-natured 68-year-old lives up to his name, always busy with some task around the house, tidying up the garden, mowing the lawn. ``To tell the truth, a man's got to work,'' he observes. ``I got a job, that's the biggest part of it.''

Scurry's work helps earn him a place in this family-style halfway house for parolees, work-release inmates, and others whose most recent home has been a penitentiary.

In between phone calls and quick conferences with staff members, Linda Allen, director of the house, snatches a few moments to give a picture of what makes the place itself work.

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Above all else, she affirms, the people who live here have ``to know that someone cares for them.'' The refurbished two-story brick building on Columbia's bustling Bull Street, once a run-down boarding house, has to be ``a real family setting,'' she says.

For years, Mrs. Allen, an energetic woman with a talent for handling myriad details simultaneously, has been helping to create that setting. She started as a secretary with the Alston Wilkes Society, a group that works throughout South Carolina to ease inmates' transition back into normal life, then became a volunteer with the society when funding for her salary as a secretary ran out. For the last three years she has directed halfway houses, and is currently at the helm of the Alston Wilkes Home, Columbia Central, which relocated to its Bull Street address nine months ago.

Her 40-member ``family'' includes men and women of all generations, from people nearing their 70s to a recently arrived 17-year-old. It's rare to have a teen-ager, Allen points out, but this young man fell between the cracks -- not young enough for the society's juvenile facility, not really old enough for the adult halfway house. She and her colleagues felt he ought to be helped, however, so she called a meeting of the residents and told them what would be expected in their relationship with the young newcomer.

It's worked out well, she says. The young man, whose own family life had been turbulent, ``doesn't go anywhere without telling,'' she says. And the older men ``took on this youngster -- he has a whole houseful of big brothers.''

At the other end of the age spectrum is Henry Scurry, whose work here earns him a substantial decrease in the $45 monthly rent all residents pay.

``When are you going to retire, Henry?'' asks Ted Moore, deputy director of the Alston Wilkes society. Mr. Moore suggests facetiously that Scurry could then do some volunteer work here.

``Not me,'' Scurry shoots back. ``I worked for 28 years for free -- no more.'' Those were the years Scurry spent in prison following a rape conviction as a young teen-ager.

Work is a central concern of every resident here. One young black woman has been at the halfway house a number of weeks after ``two years, three months'' in prison for grand larceny. She needs a job, she explains, before she can be reunited with her 31-month-old son, now in a foster home in Florida. She hasn't seen him since he was a month old. She'd like to get work in a garment factory, and she'd also like to get a high school equivalency certificate. It won't be easy, since she has little employment or educational experience to build on.

Still, her situation is just the kind that Alston Wilkes staffers have been dealing with for over 20 years. The society has volunteer employment counselors in every county in the state, and has close working relationships with the Department of Corrections, the state Parole Board, and other agencies. The halfway house has its own skilled staff, such as Mubarak A. Al-Muid, who is working on a Masters degree in rehabilitative counseling at the nearby University of South Carolina. His ability to help place people in jobs has been ``fantastic,'' says Allen.

Vigilance is crucial to running a successful halfway house, both Allen and Mr. Moore point out. There are rules that residents must observe, such as the 10 p.m. curfew. Drinking or drug use is forbidden.

Then there's the constant vigilance of the city, which, says Moore, was not thrilled when the halfway house moved to its new, more central location last January. City inspections are frequent and thorough, especially of the house's well-equipped kitchen.

Every resident takes a turn on the kitchen shift, Allen explains. Each appliance is carefully taken apart and cleaned. The cook knows that when ``that `A' goes [the city's rating, posted over a counter], she goes too,'' laughs Allen.

How does Allen know that the program is succeeding? She admits it's nearly impossible to keep up with everyone who has gone through the program. But there are some clear indicators of success. For one thing, she says, ``I've never had a week that a former resident hasn't come back to see how things are going.''

And sometimes all that's needed is one solid testimonial from a resident. Allen remembers one very low point in her work, not long after she had become director. She was having doubts about the good they were doing at the halfway house and felt ready to resign. Then at a residents' meeting one evening, a totally unprompted comment changed her mind. The man who spoke, Allen recalls, was ``your stereotype inmate,'' still dressed in ``pen clothes, wearing an earring.''

His words: ``I want to tell you fellows something. See that woman over there? She loves you. She came to me when my own people wouldn't come.''

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