'Lucky To Be Alive:' Fire Disrupts Post-Incarceration Re-Entry For Women Of Mart's House | Connecticut Public Radio

'Lucky To Be Alive:' Fire Disrupts Post-Incarceration Re-Entry For Women Of Mart's House

Aug 29, 2019

Right now, there are 941 women in prison in Connecticut. For those that make it out, one of the most difficult initial parts of re-entry can be finding somewhere to live.

A fire recently devastated one home that helps former inmates.

Mart’s House – a unique re-entry project in Hartford, which has been helping women post-incarceration for more than a decade – burned on June 5.

“I thought somebody was having a cookout and they didn’t invite me,” said Yveline Louissaint, who was taking an nap when the fire broke out around 2:30 p.m.

At that time, Kimberly Lebel was preparing a brunch-style meal in the kitchen of Mart’s House, making eggs, bacon and French toast.

"One of the girls that was cooking with me screamed ‘Oh my god, it’s a fire!’ That’s how I found out,” Lebel said. “And then, the windows just exploded in the dining room.”

Monique Greene’s first instinct was to get out; not to try and save what little she had post-incarceration. She lost letters given to her by her boyfriend – ones sent to her before he died of cancer. She lost her teeth – a set of dentures that were molded for her in prison after a long wait.

“I felt good,” Greene said. “I was the best thing since sliced bread. But, when I lost them in the fire, all hell broke loose. But I'll get them back.”

After the chaos of evacuation, the women were told that the cause of the fire was deemed an accident – a fire started by something that happened outside the building. A firefighter told Greene that she and her roomates were lucky to be alive. 

“He said, ‘Let me tell you something. This is an old house and it went up so quick,’” Greene recalled. “He said, ‘I'm telling you and the hinges on the door would have melted where you wouldn't have got out.’ He said ‘Thank god it wasn’t in the middle of the night because y’all wouldn’t have made it.'”

Mart's House was established in 2008. It’s unique because the city zoned it in a way that up to eight unrelated people could live together in the space.

Kimberly Lebel was in prison for 14 years. She didn’t come out with much – and that’s because she said you can only really make 75 cents a day while working in prison.

“You do not have a penny,” Lebel said. “When you leave, you are not given any money by the state, even though you were incarcerated for 14 years. It doesn't matter.”

Lebel said finding Mart’s House – and not having to worry about a roof over her head – was her “saving grace.”

“If it wasn't for Mart’s House, I probably would have lost my way because there’s just been so many trials and tribulations trying to get back on my feet,” Lebel said.

Yveline Louissaint agreed with Lebel that finding housing after prison can be the most pressing need.

“Literally, the week before you leave, that’s when you speak to someone and they be like ‘Well, do you have somewhere to go?’” Louissaint said. “If you don’t, ‘OK. On that day, we’ll let you make a call to 2-1-1 and see if they can place you.’”

Louissaint said that when she called 2-1-1, she was told it would take another two weeks for her to be placed into housing.

“OK, so what am I supposed to do tonight?” Louissaint said. “I just got out. Where am I supposed to go?”

Almost three months after the fire, the women of Mart’s House now live together in an old juvenile detention center a few blocks away from the Capitol in Hartford. Deb Rogala and her colleagues in the resettlement program at Community Partners in Action, the nonprofit that ran Mart’s House, took on the task of finding a temporary home for the displaced women.

“What people don't realize is that Mart's House, where the women lived, was a home,” Rogala said. “It was a home that was established by warm paint, warm furniture. The place that we're in today used to be a juvenile detention center for us.”

Her staff bussed the women to Walmart recently so that they could pick out some décor that could liven up the old detention center. For Rogala, while it is a lot about making the women feel at home, it’s also about keeping everyone together.

“One of the most important pieces for CPA and the resettlement program is that these women would not be in a hotel --  that they would all be together and we would try to rebuild the best we could, but we were going to do it together,” Rogala said.

Right now, there’s a plan to rebuild Mart's House. Rogala said it’ll take about a year-and-a-half for that to happen.

For now, Rogala and her staff will keep working to make the old juvenile detention center a home – and to make sure that the next house is zoned to accommodate all the women.