THE pretty Victorian house that is home to Our New Beginnings is technically a prison. Women offenders come here instead of, or after release from, the penitentiary. But it doesn't feel like a prison; it feels more like a refuge. It's tidy and quiet and homey: comfy saggy chairs, a rug here and a toy there, gauzy curtains, inexpensive furniture. Everything is a little worn, but clean.
``We let them have as much of their own stuff as possible; I don't want it to look like a jail,'' says Carole Pope. ``For some of these women, this is the only home they've ever had.''
Ms. Pope founded Our New Beginnings while she was serving four years in Salem Penitentiary for theft and forgery, and when she left in 1981 she brought it out with her. It started as a ``wish list'' of what would be needed to really reintegrate offenders into society.
Pope says she started the program because she was angry at the system.
``I deserved to be punished for what I did,'' she says precisely. ``I did not deserve the emotional damage that I received. It created in me an anger that I never felt before.
``I have people who reoffend in 24 hours, when nobody has bothered to fix their problem. Nobody has taught them to read or write. They have to pay living expenses, restitution, court costs, supervision fees - they can't even get a job as a hotel maid because they can't read the cleaning supply cans. They reoffend faster than the parole office can get the paper work done. It would be better if they just handed you a needle and a bag of dope,'' she says, some of that anger showing.
In the beginning, Pope helped women who were just released with money for bus fares and telephone calls. It was a struggle at first to get judges and potential benefactors to believe that ``an ex-con,'' as she refers to herself, was trying to do something positive, that this wasn't just another scam. Even now, with a permanent home and the support of the prison system behind her, it's still a struggle to survive financially.
The organization's annual budget of about $175,000 comes from contracts for services with the county and from foundation grants. This allows it, each year, to serve 200 to 300 women, referred to Pope by courts, public defenders, district attorneys, and probation and parole officers. Its founder describes Our New Beginnings as a ``sentencing alternative for a judge to use instead of a state penitentiary, or instead of local jail time for people who are not stable enough to be just on probation.''
It is no different from a halfway house in its efforts to ease people back into society through counseling, tutoring, and employment help, she points out. But it is the only comprehensive program in the state focused specifically on the needs of women, an area that tends to be grossly neglected and underfunded, she says.
But Carole Pope is a fighter, and the constant effort to garner support for her program only bolsters her resolve. A chunky woman, with a rough bowl haircut, wearing jeans and purple velour top, she lounges behind her desk, talking with tremendous compassion - and toughness - in her deep, gruff voice. A word she uses often is ``appropriate''; she always says it with a little hesitation and emphasis. She wants Our New Beginnings participants ``to learn how to live appropriately in the world. And the skills they don't have, we teach them.''
Sheila, a young nurse who has been here since April, says: ``It's like living with your mother; she keeps you in line.''
Since Our New Beginnings started five years ago, Carole Pope has helped some 1,200 women, many of whom have histories of drug addiction, theft, and prostitution. Her success rate, she says, is between 68 and 72 percent.
According to Michael Schrunk, district attorney of Multnomah County, ``If [Our New Beginnings] has any fault, it's that there's only one of Carole Pope. Too bad we can't clone her.''
Kicking the drug habit and dealing with the lack of trust and self-esteem that are a result of past hurts - about 95 percent of her clients have been incest victims, for instance - are first steps at Our New Beginnings.
One client was a drug addict for 32 years. ``This is the longest she's been clean in her whole life,'' says Pope. ``It's like starting all over again, like being born.'' Helping to bring about such results is a staff that includes a varying number of ex-offenders, plus a professional core of two mental health counselors and a drug counselor.
It's crucial for clients to get an apartment and a job - the latter a tough proposition in Portland's depressed economy. Certain jobs would be unwise choices for participants - ``too much stress,'' Pope says.
``You can't put someone who's been a junkie in a drugstore,'' she explains. ``You can't put someone who's committed theft behind a cash register. You can't put someone who has a history of prostitution on the hostess roll at a motel. I can't put them in a position where they would be victimized or victimize.''
Good avenue are highway construction, being a nurse's aide, or getting a college education. ``And they are ideally suited to being drug counselors.'' Pope herself take a direct hand is getting her clients ``job ready.'' She works with jobs programs conducted by the state's department of employment, which has a special staff that works solely with ex-offenders.
All the women at Our New Beginnings are quietly dressed in suits and skirts; one woman, Rose, always refers to the other women as ``ladies.'' It feels awkward to ask people about their past when they are trying so plainly to put it behind them.
It's a hedged-in world; you have to get permission to leave, to go on errands or go off for the weekend, and there are limits to the times you can use the phone. On the other hand, there is a lot of support and comfort here. Sheila talks about the pleasures of waking up to homemade cinnamon rolls.
Role modeling is an important part of the program, and all the women who work at Our New Beginnings are former offenders. Donna, now a counselor involved in screening women coming into the program, had been a heroin addict for 12 years. She is wearing a smart white suit and chic red earrings. A round-faced blond girl asks her for permission to go to Narcotics Anonymous, in the wheedling tone of any young girl wanting an outing. ``Run and ask Carole real quick if you can go, honey,'' says Donna kindly.
``It's real hard, changing,'' Donna says. ``I almost said `forget it.' It's like being reborn again - first you crawl and then you walk. You don't have any of the same friends, any of the same social life. It almost broke me, but I hung in there. I'm still running and asking for help.''
It is true that some program participants ``come in here kicking and screaming,'' says Pope. Patience is called for. ``We deal with them over, and over - until they get it right.''