Over the past several decades, cities across the United States have had trouble dealing with abandoned properties as factories close and people move out of urban centers and into the suburbs.
Simultaneously, the incarceration rate for women is growing faster than that of any other sector, with re-incarceration rates being particularly high as many mothers leave prison without homes or any means to provide for the families with whom they are reunited.
These two causes have garnered quite a bit of attention among our philanthropic elites, the latest example displayed in Mark Zuckerberg, who has already publicly committed $45 million this year from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to groups dedicated to ending the era of mass incarceration and fixing the affordable housing crisis in American cities.
While both of these urban concerns have been discussed by policymakers at length, and significant time and resources have gone into attempts to fix them, they continue to persist and grow.
But, in Indianapolis, a solution came not from policymakers or philanthropic foundations, but from the insight of a woman personally entrenched in the troubles of her city.
Vanessa Thompson knew quite a bit about the weaknesses of her city’s institutional systems. A child of the foster-care system, she has lived in the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis since 2000 when she was convicted, along with two others, of the murder of a 16-year old girl in a drug-related dispute.
Herself greatly affected by the domestic tumult of her past, she had also heard the many horror stories of her fellow prisoners’ incarcerations and re-incarcerations. She observed how, all too often, they were tied to domestic issues surrounding homelessness and unsafe home environments.
Seventeen years in prison had also given Thompson time to rethink her own life trajectory.
After several turbulent years of imprisonment and continued misbehavior, she had a change of heart and enrolled in the prison’s higher education program, becoming particularly interested in coursework on public policy. Still, with her own release date far ahead of her, the possibility of putting the things she was learning to use seemed remote.
Then, in 2015, her life changed. Watching TV one day, Thompson heard an Indiana mayoral candidate discussing the persistent problem of abandoned properties and homes in Indianapolis.
It suddenly occurred to her: her fellow prisoners were in desperate need of homes, and her city had homes it was desperate to fill.
Of course, it was not as simple as the city handing these properties over to women upon their release. Most of the abandoned homes were far from being up to code, and the practical absurdity of offering the incentive of a free home to any woman who could land herself in prison was obvious.
But Thompson was determined to turn her idea into a functional proposition. In consultation with various local development organizations, Thompson and several other women worked together to organize their project and then to describe it to their state legislature through a video filmed in the prison.
They envisioned a program in which, upon their release, female prisoners would be given jobs renovating abandoned Indianapolis properties. They would be provided with food and a temporary apartment while putting in 5,000 hours of renovation work. Then, when they had completed their hours, they would receive their payment: a formerly-abandoned, newly-renovated Indianapolis house. They would receive a home, and one less city lot would be vacant.
“It’s a double restoration,” Thompson explained in an interview. “Not just of the house but of the person. What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need, more than anything? Ownership. Of our minds, of our bodies, and of our physical homes."
Thompson’s proposal was passed unanimously by the Indiana state legislature.
While the program, which they have named Constructing Our Future, is still in the planning process, Thompson’s vision is already reaching beyond Indianapolis. She hopes that, once implemented, Constructing Our Future might become a model for other cities across the country.
Such a program, according to Thompson, will alleviate the burden of these women to their local communities, and benefit both them and their city in the process. In all the complex infrastructure of public programs established to try to keep women out of prison by simply giving them what they need to survive, women “come here and live off of the state [and] just go out and continue to do that.” This model is bad both for the women and for their community.
Thompson’s program, on the other hand, a sustainable local answer to two local problems, should serve as a model for the way in which effective solutions can be found for local problems: in the community itself.
Undoubtedly, the story (and the fate) of this program will provide a useful and humble lesson for philanthropists seeking to end mass incarceration and fix America’s affordable housing crisis.