Several years ago, Patricia Hunt needed relief from her back pain. Her mother soon offered it—in the form of opioids.
Hunt, now 56, began taking them regularly, becoming so reliant on the drugs that family members urged her more than once to go to rehab. Yet hospital staff told Hunt’s sister that they couldn’t help her until she “hit rock-bottom.”
By 2015, Hunt sat behind bars in a federal prison for drug-related charges. There, the Woodbridge resident says she finally received the help she needed, getting sober and exploring the circumstances—including enduring “several different types of abuse”—that led to her self-destructive lifestyle. When she transitioned to a D.C. halfway house shortly after her 2016 release, she learned of a chance to start over with a job-readiness and empowerment program in Alexandria serving women who are formerly incarcerated or experiencing homelessness, Together We Bake. Within days, she was a student.
For Hunt and the roughly 130 women who have graduated from the program since it launched seven years ago, TWB has been a game-changer. For eight weeks, small groups of women from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—many of them formerly imprisoned for nonviolent offenses—attend courses in food preparation and life skills at the organization’s home at Alexandria’s Downtown Baptist Church.
Friends and co-founders Tricia Sabatini and Stephanie Wright launched TWB in 2012 while training for the Marine Corps Marathon. In 2016, the organization merged with Fruitcycle, which made snacks from picked-over produce and had hired employees through TWB, bringing on its founder and Alexandria City Council candidate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker as co-director.
The products, such as cinnamon-pecan granola and chocolate chip cookies, are made by TWB students and employees and sold online and in local stores, with a portion of proceeds feeding back into a program that also relies on grant funding and private donations. On completion of the course, graduates receive their ServSafe certification (a nationally recognized food safety credential) and employment assistance with one of the organization’s partners, such as Starbucks or Del Ray’s Dairy Godmother. TWB has a 60 to 70 percent post-graduate employment rate and an 8 percent recidivism rate.
On Tuesday morning, former vice presidential candidate and Sen. Tim Kaine visited with several graduates, including Hunt, at the campus. Kaine, who has been on a local tour of organizations related to criminal justice reform and job training, and serves on the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee, says one question keeps popping up on his visits with drug offenders.
“’How come I had to get arrested to get a recovery program like this?’” he repeats.
It’s a sentiment that many of the women in the room echo, criticizing the drug rehabilitation and mental health systems in the U.S. for their high cost and lack of accessibility. For these women, jail or prison ironically provides an opportunity to get their lives back on track.
Since the so-called war on drugs in the 1980s, imprisonment rates for non-violent crimes have risen sharply, putting an alarming number of women behind bars. Today, there are more than eight times as many incarcerated women in the U.S. today as in 1980, rising to nearly a quarter-million, the vast majority of them mothers.
Heather Putnam, a 46-year-old mother of two and TWB graduate, spoke about her personal struggle with mental illness, drugs, and the fact that it took a rehabilitation program at the Arlington County jail to turn her life around.
After the loss of her husband to a methadone overdose, Putnam says she’d grown “extremely lonely.” When a friend offered her some crack cocaine in 2013, she didn’t turn away.
Using crack, she says, made her happy, a feeling she chased for the next few years by making drug runs to D.C. at the expense of her wallet and her family. When her habit made it impossible to pay the rent, she and her teen son moved in with her parents. When she couldn’t help pay her parents, her son left to stay with his father’s family and Putnam checked into a hotel. And when she couldn’t afford her hotel room, she lived in her car or squatted in nearby homes for about six months.
The using caught up with her in 2016, when she was arrested for possession. With the help of the Addictions, Corrections, and Treatment unit in jail, Putnam says she got clean and transitioned to an Alexandria halfway house last year.
Today, Putnam has her food-handling certification from TWB, lives in Arlington—an area she praises for having more social services than her former home in Fauquier County—and has restored her relationship with her now-adult children. For her, TWB was a chance to gain more than job skills, saying that the staff continues to be a resource and that her network of new friends are “women I can count on.”
That bond among program participants is readily apparent in the discussion room, as graduates chat and hug after sharing their stories. One woman, a victim of sexual abuse, says she slept on the living-room floor of her mother’s home with her three children for seven years while struggling to find employment, haunted by her criminal record. Another says she was so isolated during a long prison sentence that she had difficulty hugging her children afterward from the sheer shock of human contact.
Drugs, mental illness, and abuse are running themes in these conversations, issues deeply entangled with both homelessness and incarceration. One woman, who says she had such severe depression that she had to be hospitalized, spoke to the sense of defeat these challenges can cause.
“When you go through a certain amount of trauma, you tend to lose your voice along the way,” she says.
Helping women find that voice is a central goal of TWB, which hosts empowerment and life skills classes alongside its food service curriculum.
“These ladies are ready to work,” says program assistant and TWB graduate Colida Johnson. “But it’s getting the support from employers to give them a chance [that TWB provides].”
As for Hunt, the now part-time outreach specialist for TWB is sober, enjoying time with her three children and seven grandchildren, and is soon to get married—a wedding that will be hosted at Downtown Baptist Church.
“I’m a totally different person,” she says. “My children are proud of me now.”
DCist is one of eight D.C.-based news outlets dedicating a portion of our coverage on June 28 to collaborative news coverage about ending homelessness in the nation's capital. See more at DCHomelessCrisis.Press