By BRUCE EDWARDS
The two-story house with the pitched roof at 103 Park Avenue looks like any other in this middle-class neighborhood. But what sets this house apart is that it’s a home that gives those convicted of a crime a place to live and transition back into society.
Since then, 628 former inmates have made their way through the doors of the Rutland Dismas House — one of four in the state.
“What sets us apart as unique from other housing options, what they have is the community living,” said Terese Black, Dismas House director.
Black said the living environment provides support for up to 11 residents (both men and women). Currently there are 10 residents, with one bed set aside for the outreach coordinator. That position is being funded by a Bowse Health Trust grant.
Residents are expected to attend the family dinner five nights a week, as well as the Wednesday evening house meeting.
“Basically, what we try very hard to do is … treat them like adults,” she said. “[We] expect them to take the responsibility as an adult.”
She said residents support each other while learning to live together. She said support from the outside community is critical as well to their success.
The outside community includes a team of volunteers who help cook the Monday through Friday meal, and then gather with the residents for dinner.
Volunteers include church members, Dismas board members, longtime supporters, and former residents, Black said.
She said volunteers have a firm belief in “these men and women who’ve made mistakes in their lives and paid the price … and we can give them support to make changes in their lives and move on in positive ways.”
Black said Dismas House also encourages residents to reconcile with their families. Family visits to the house are encouraged, and there are family-oriented events, including camping and bowling.
She said the activities provide “a safe place and a supportive place to become mom and dad again.”
The first Dismas House was started in 1974 by Rev. Jack Hickey in Nashville, Tennessee. The Rutland Dismas House was started by Rita McCaffrey and her husband, Judge Francis McCaffrey. It’s named after the good thief who was crucified next to Jesus.
Inmates who are eligible for furlough before their sentences are complete can apply to Dismas House for admission.
Black said applicants go through a screening process that includes three interviews. Sex offenders and those convicted of dealing drugs are excluded, she said.
The toughest challenge for residents on furlough is finding a job. Black said that is often a hurdle for someone with a criminal record. During their first two weeks at the house, residents are given two weeks free room and board. After that, she said, residents pay $80 a week.
Residents agree to stay at Dismas House for a minimum of three months. “That’s what we ask of them, to make that commitment, because we’re more able to build community when people are here at least three months,” she said, adding that most wind up staying from four to eight months.
For at least the first month, the state imposes an 8 p.m., curfew. After that, the curfew is extended to 10 p.m.
Black said Dismas House offers support and a degree of structure in their lives.
For current resident Scott Manfredi, the sense of community at the house was just what he needed.
“If you’re stressed out there, being out there on the street and you come here,” Manfredi said, “it’s very peaceful and there’s a sense of hope here.”
Manfredi lived at Dismas House last year but moved out to live with his ailing grandmother. When she passed away, he moved in with a friend, but when that didn’t work out, he moved back to Dismas House last month.
The sober environment and support he receives at the house is so important that when he finishes probation, Manfredi said he intends to stay there.
“I’ve been in and out of jail quite a bit, and it all stemmed from drinking,” said Manfredi, who has been sober for nearly a year.
Ed Walker, a former resident, said Dismas House helped put him back on his feet when he had absolutely nothing.
“They gave me everything I needed to succeed,” said Walker, who spent two years in jail before being furloughed last April. “When I got out of jail, I had nothing,” he said.
One of the important benefits of living at Dismas House is the many opportunities to give back to the community.
“I helped out a bunch of church groups,” Walker said. “I helped out with block parties for Project Vision.”
Today, Walker holds down a job and is continuing his education at the Community College of Vermont. Although no longer a resident, Walker rents a satellite apartment from Dismas House.