Patricia Whyte has come a long way in the past two years.
On Christmas Day in 2018, Whyte was being arrested. Last Christmas, she was living in a transition house in Halifax. This year, she's a staff member at that same house. She'll be working there on Christmas Day.
"It's quite the turn of events," she said.
It's a journey that sums up exactly what the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia is trying to do at Holly House — Nova Scotia's only supportive housing option that caters primarily to women who have recently left prison or jail and are trying to reintegrate into the community.
The provincial government announced Tuesday that Holly House would receive $180,000 for each of the next two years, which will cover about half of the total operating costs and allow the operation to consistently house a total of 10 women, up from eight.
4-year prison sentence
Whyte was handed a four-year federal prison sentence in 2016 and released early, in January 2018. She lived in Cape Breton until her arrest that December, when she was sent back to prison to finish her sentence.
"It was weird ... I grew up in Cape Breton, all my family and stuff was there. You would think I would have succeeded there, right? But I didn't. I did the worst there," she said.
On her second release, Whyte moved into a halfway house in Halifax and soon connected with the Elizabeth Fry Society, which invited her to take a room in Holly House.
After a three-month stay, she moved out of Holly House and into an apartment of her own nearby. She's since started studying toward a degree at Mount Saint Vincent University, and the Elizabeth Fry Society hired her this spring as an Indigenous peer-support worker.
"I had such a wrap-around of services that had no expectations on me other than to support me. That was the huge difference," she said.
Little recidivism after early releases
Mark Furey, the province's justice minister, said the value of what Holly House offers was underscored this year during the pandemic.
To protect against possible COVID-19 outbreaks, the province released 53 inmates from jails this spring. Another 99 people serving intermittent sentences — spending only weekends in jail — were also temporarily released.
Groups including the Elizabeth Fry Society stepped in to make sure those people had housing and other support services, and Furey said the approach worked.
There was only one case, according to Furey, of an inmate reoffending among the early releases.
He said it's part of a broader shift in the justice system to find alternatives to incarceration and reintegrate people who have been incarcerated, recognizing factors that might have lead them into the system in the first place.
"Homelessness, lack of employment, addictions and other factors. They're separated from those factors, for the most part, while they're in custody — we don't want them to fall back into those circumstances and that environment," Furey said in an interview.
"The capacity to provide that connection to housing and other needs, we see has been best facilitated through Holly House."
'The model for the future'
Holly House first opened in 2007 as affordable housing, not necessarily for people exiting correctional facilities. In 2017, the focus shifted to vulnerable women and those transitioning out of jail and prison.
Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said inconsistent funding has been a limiting factor for Holly House as it has been trying to support more people upon their release.
She said she hopes the provincial funding will continue beyond the current two-year commitment, but for now, "it's a wonderful start."
"It is an important recognition of this work, and now this needs to be our way forward," she said. "This should be the model for the future."
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