Photos courtesy of The Lilac House
The Lilac House offers hope and a safe place for women after incarceration in Westchester County.
After a sentence is served at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a newly released individual will walk out with a stipend of $40; she may or may not have a place to spend her first night on the outside.
As someone who was formerly incarcerated and experienced a difficult re-entry herself, this harsh reality was something that touched Pamela Zimba profoundly. It inspired her to found The Lilac House, in Mount Vernon, as a safe place for women to land and a home where they could begin to rebuild their lives.
“People who are first coming home need a lot of support and help with basic things — and how do you survive in this world without money?” asks Zimba. She says that many who are trying to return to society feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, without an address or a home base.
In 2013, the then-25-year-old New Rochelle resident received a seven-year sentence, after a plea deal, for being involved with a group that committed a burglary. She served her first year at Bedford Hills and then was moved to the medium-security Taconic Correctional Facility. During that time, Zimba was accepted into the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that provides a college education to people in prison; it is also where her graduation ceremony was held in 2017, when she received an associate’s degree in liberal arts.
After exiting prison in 2018, Zimba says she began contemplating ways to address the genuine need for formerly incarcerated women to find a welcoming home — a place where they could be connected with resources as they prepare to reintegrate into the community.
“When I was released, I ended up in the shelter; there was no transitional housing,” she says, apart from some local organizations geared toward assisting those with mental health challenges or substance abuse. Staying in the shelter felt much to her like the prison did, she says, “and that is when the dream of The Lilac House came to me.”
During a fellowship at the Ford Foundation, as a program assistant in the Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice departments, a job that Zimba secured after her release, she was introduced to Susan Burton, a nationally known advocate and founder of A New Way of Life. The non-profit’s mission is to provide a nationwide network of residences, along with re-entry support, for formerly incarcerated women.
Zimba attended a training with Burton and eventually received a grant. The funds would help turn her idea to establish a home in Westchester for women transitioning out of the criminal justice system into a reality. She called it The Lilac House, and it became part of Burton’s SAFE Housing Network.
“Nobody would rent to me when I told a landlord what the property would be used for, so Ms. Burton told me to buy a house,” Zimba says, eventually purchasing a charming house in Mount Vernon that can accommodate up to seven women. Thanks to many generous donations of furnishings and some beautification of the interior, The Lilac House opened in January 2023.
In addition to providing transitional housing for formally incarcerated women, the facility offers essential services, like mentoring, substance use treatment, mental health support, computer assistance, parenting classes, and more — with a goal for its residents to achieve self-sufficiency in two years or less. To keep the house running, Zimba relies on grants, fundraising, and private donations in addition to collecting limited rent from those who are able.
“I personalize a plan for everyone; some people want to go to work immediately; some need to go to school, because somebody who did 20 years doesn’t need the same services as somebody who did three years. Others literally need to just decompress here, then adjust, and relearn everything,” she says.
Sharon Griest Ballen, chair of the Prison Relations Advisory Committee to the Town of Bedford (the only municipality in the country to have a committee specifically to advise it on prison issues) also serves on the Corrections Advisory Committee to New York State Assemblymember Chris Burdick. She says that the two most important indicators of success for anyone leaving prison are housing and employment, followed closely by a supportive family.
“If someone who has been released from a correctional facility cannot find a place to live and/or a job, it should not be surprising that people may feel that they have no other option to support themselves other than by resorting to illegal methods. That is why jobs and homes are so vitally important…to stop the cycle of crime and recidivism.
“There is a correlation between jobs and housing, or the lack thereof, and recidivism rates,” Ballen says. “If someone does not have a home or is living in unstable housing, such as a shelter, their chances of recidivism are greatly enhanced.”
The Lilac House caught the attention of NBC’s Inspiring America series. In a segment that aired in June, host Savannah Guthrie shined a light on the issue, along with Burton’s and Zimba’s efforts.
“People say that you should go home and get your life together and just do the right thing, but nobody will give you a second chance to do it. Landlords won’t rent to you; people won’t give you jobs,” Zimba says. “At The Lilac House, women don’t have to worry about where they are going to live, how they will eat, take a shower, wash their clothes, and visit with their kids. Our residents are genuinely trying to get their lives together.”