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Manchester House Becomes Home for Former Inmates 

click to enlarge Carlton Smith is one of the first three residents of a new recovery house for former jail residents. The house in Manchester will soon house eight.

Scott Elmquist

Carlton Smith is one of the first three residents of a new recovery house for former jail residents. The house in Manchester will soon house eight.

Carlton Smith was out of jail on bond and staying with his mother, but struggling. “I was still fighting with myself,” he says.

It wasn’t the first time Smith had been arrested -- this time for possession, avoiding the police and a weapons charge -- but this time was different.

“Once I got caught and locked up, I sat down,” he says. “I realized I’d better do what I’m supposed to do, not what I want to do.”

Smith, 36, is one of the first three residents of a new recovery home on Dinwiddie Avenue. The Manchester house, built in 1919, soon will house eight people trying to get their lives back on track after incarceration at the Richmond jail -- former dealers and addicts alike. An open house Tuesday night celebrated renovations made since its April beginning and invited neighbors to tour the house.

“The people I stay with, they’re going through the same thing I’m going through,” Smith says. “We feed off each other’s energy. We have a problem -- we talk to each other.”

Smith starting using drugs in middle school -- marijuana at first, and opiates, after a doctor prescribed some for a football injury. His mother kicked him out, he says.

“I was a wild, loose cannon. I thought I knew everything and I did everything my way,” he says. “I went to high school for six months and then the streets took me over.”

Smith knows living in the house won’t necessarily help his legal case, but his six children, ages 5 to 17, are what motivates him to stay clean now.

“My daughter just had father-daughter day and I couldn’t go,” he says. “It really struck me. Even if I would’ve been free, I still would’ve been high.”

Smith works as a mechanic at Quality Auto Repair. He’s been working on cars since he was a teenager. “I know all about cars but I don’t have any papers,” he says. His boss is helping him get certified.

click to enlarge Speech, leader of the hip-hop group Arrested Development, (porch left) and Sheriff C.T. Woody (porch right) join in a performance by an alumni of the REAL program at the REAL house event on Tuesday. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Speech, leader of the hip-hop group Arrested Development, (porch left) and Sheriff C.T. Woody (porch right) join in a performance by an alumni of the REAL program at the REAL house event on Tuesday.

The house is an outgrowth of the Richmond City Justice Center’s REAL program, which stands for Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles. It helps people prepare for life after incarceration at the Richmond jail. A partner nonprofit, REAL Life, works with people once they’re released to overcome barriers to re-entry, such as employment and housing.

The house, which supporters hope will be the first of many, gives residents a structured living space with as much support as possible. There’s help with banking and finance and 10 hours of community service a week, in addition to their jobs. Smith says he picks up trash around the neighborhood for an hour every morning, and they mow neighbors’ lawns. There are Wednesday meetings and family dinners on Sundays. Rent is $135 a week.

The vast majority of neighbors have been accepting, program director Sarah Scarbrough says. “A few people are skeptical about a recovery house being in the neighborhood. But, the alternative is a crack house,” she says. “We’re trying to change the footprint of this neighborhood.”

Keith Travers has another 17 months in jail for drug possession with the intent to sell. “I was selling and using,” he says. But he’s part of the REAL program in jail and out during the day on work release.

At the celebration Tuesday evening, he says he’s looking forward to moving into the house once he’s out of jail. With a job in construction with Virginia Commonwealth University and another part-time job moving furniture, the 30-year-old wants to make it stick. He’s getting a certificate in heating and air conditioning service.

“[REAL is] helping me become a better productive citizen, instead of going my own route,” he says. “It’s helping me change my people, places and things.”

The event also saw performances by other alumni of the program and Todd Thomas, known by the stage name Speech, of Arrested Development. The Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group is working on a project at the Richmond Justice Center this week and next, in collaboration with residents of the jail.

Sheriff C.T. Woody was among the elected officials at the event, advocating for treating addiction like an illness, not a crime.

“We are arresting the wrong people,” Woody says. “The jails are full of addicts. The jails are full of those that are mentally ill, and it’s no place for either one of them.”

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