When Kuuipo Miramontes was released from Hiland Mountain Correctional Center after serving 30 days, she faced a decision: Return to her old ways, which landed her in jail in the first place, or try a new strategy.
“I put myself here,” says Miramontes, 42. “I knew what I was doing before was not a good way of doing things. I had to be around different people. I had to make sure to take care of myself first.”
“Here” is the Bettye Davis Center, a transitional housing facility in East Anchorage operated by New Life Development, a nonprofit that helps those struggling with criminal records, mental health issues or addiction reclaim their lives. They offer low-rent housing and serve meals daily (in 2019, they served more than 2,400 meals) as well as counseling, and other support services.
New Life believes everyone has the capacity to change. So does Providence Health & Services Alaska, whose mission is to serve the poor and vulnerable. When it received a community partnership request from New Life last year, the missions aligned. Providence gave New Life $45,000 to help it maintain its transitional housing program. Without those funds, the program simply could not stay afloat.
“We are one of those agencies with no state funding, so their help came at a time when we really needed it,” says Troy Buckner, executive director, who put his law career on hold to devote his life, full time, to the program. “We have 65 beds and we are a sober facility. We offer services from case management, to mentors, to drug and alcohol sobriety meetings. We know addiction is a disease, and we really work hard toward sobriety.”
Miramontes is one of the success stories. Now employed at the center as a cook, she spent 18 months not only learning to stay sober but also reuniting with her son and repairing relationships with her family.
“Being in this place gives you structured living,” she says of her time as a resident. “It also teaches you how to hold yourself accountable. If it weren’t for this place, I wouldn’t have made it. I’m sure of it.”
Lionel Walker is 38 and lives on the other side of the apartment complex, reserved for its male residents. He said he was homeless and battling addiction throughout his life, and it eventually landed him in jail. Coming to the Bettye Davis Center has given him a chance to beat his addiction, once and for all.
“The last time I remembered being sober was when I was 11 years old,” Walker says. “Then, when I was homeless, I got sober on my own for two months, but it didn’t last. When I got out of jail, I knew if I didn’t come here, I was going to slip back into my old habits or die.”
With the help of New Life, Walker is one-and-a-half years sober and employed – both conditions of his residency. He has five months left in an 18-month program designed to reinforce a sober life and teach re-entry skills for responsible living. He also has completed anger-management classes and sobriety classes outside of New Life.
“I have repaired a lot of relationships,” he says. “It’s like a family here and we all look out for each other. We hold each other accountable.”
For Buckner, these successes are reason to persevere. Mental illness and addiction are vicious diseases that do not discriminate, and watching the residents and the strength it takes to face these challenges is humbling. When they complete the mandatory re-entry training through New Life, 90% aren’t likely to reoffend, he said, compared to 35% for those who are released without re-entry training.
“It’s those successes that get me through each day,” Buckner says.
Emma Johnson, 32, is from Point Hope. She says her bipolar disorder is the root cause of what landed her in jail. She’s been at the Bettye Davis Center for nearly 11 months, and says the place has saved her.
“I try to fill my time, doing a lot of reading, and this place has helped me grow in my faith,” she says. “Everyone is so supportive of each other, and I don’t feel alone.”
Johnson pauses. She is near tears and can’t go on. She pulls out a hand-written note that she composed ahead of time, knowing she would feel emotional. She reads:
“New Life is like a sanctuary, a refuge, a place to escape all the negative influences of the world. It supports sobriety and growth. Being here has given me time for self-reflection and with that it’s made me become stronger in my faith. I feel like I have a new lease on life because of this program.”