Faith Bartley discusses her time in and out of prison at The Village community storefront in North Philadelphia. Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Faith Bartley wants a home to call her own. Not just a rented room, but somewhere that can take her away from the community that she’s known all her life.

“I was born and raised in this community, so I know everybody. From the time that I was a child and up until now,” Bartley, now 53, said. “Right now, I reside in a room, because every time I go look for an apartment, they go into my criminal history. Even though my record has been expunged, there are still some drug felonies on my criminal history that can’t be removed, because I was convicted of it.”

[pullquote content=”Every time I go look for an apartment, they go into my criminal history.” align=”right” /]

Bartley is a fixture in her neighborhood, doing what she can to help others. A the start of our conversation, she was even interrupted by someone asking if she had coffee.

“No sir, ain’t no coffee, bro,” She said. “Brotha, close my door. I’m in an interview.”

She doesn’t sugarcoat her past. Over the years, she’s spent time in and out of prisons, mainly for drug  possession. When she saw the drug dealers in her neighborhood riding in nice cars and making fast money, it was a no-brainer to get involved, imagining she could live a similar lifestyle. All it took was selling her first bundle of drugs.

The corners were tempting to Bartley, and at times, they still are. Even now, friends that she used to sell with will ask if she’s ready to return to the other side. She recalled how she used to sell redi-rock (a mix of crack and heroin), PCP and marijuana.

“I’m like, ‘Nah dawg. I’m tired of those silver bracelets, but I got expungement clinics coming up for you. What you going to do? You ready yet?’”

Bartley has been off parole since 2005 and has mostly stayed out of trouble. She was able to get most of her record expunged with assistance from The Village of Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit arts organization in Fairhill. Her criminal record went from 20 pages to six. Still, that doesn’t solve all of her problems. Her past still acts as a barrier to things like housing.

There are some realtors, Bartley said, that just don’t want to deal with an ex-offender.

“It’s not that I haven’t saved up a couple of dollars to get an apartment, it’s just that when people do that criminal background check, they will not let me into their place. Like, I’ve been clean from the police since 2005. It is now 2017,” Bartley said. “When are you going to give me a break and let me into somebody’s apartment, efficiency, studio, anything?”

A Second Chance

Credit: Peak Johnson / Billy Penn

Bartley is not alone. Rev. Michelle Anne Simmons, founder of Why Not Prosper, a nonprofit that provides programs and services for women in their reentry efforts, said that Bartley might be right about housing.

“I can name about four or five programs for women who are coming home,” Simmons said. “Housing just for women coming out of prison, there’s not a lot of them and not a lot of African American owned.”

Simmons added that while Philadelphia has become reentry-friendly over the years, the city could do more by offering some of its abandoned buildings or schools that could be converted into places for returning women.

In terms of housing, the Philadelphia Housing Authority participates in a program called Second Chance, a partnership between the PHA, the Eastern District Federal Court STAR program and the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services. The overall goal is to assist with transition to society for returning citizens.

The PHA provides participants of Second Chance housing assistance for up to two years, with the hope that they will be able to transition to private housing or the PHA’s public housing, or Housing Choice Voucher, program. So far PHA has 10 participants in the program.

‘I had to make a way’

Credit: Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Growing up, Bartley’s mom sent her through three bus rides to get to Northeast High School, while sending her other children to neighboring schools. Her thinking, Bartley said, was that she would get a better education in the Northeast.

After graduating in 1983, Bartley went straight into the United States Army. She served for six years as a telecommunications center operator as a way, as she put it, to escape her North Philadelphia community.

“I came from a dysfunctional family. My mom and pop didn’t put up no college fund for us. We barely graduated Northeast High School, so I had to make a way,” Bartley said. “Why stay in the hood and get sucked up? Why not try to expand your mind?”

After her time in the Army, Bartley returned home and started making “poor choices” that ultimately led to her lengthy criminal record.

One of the reasons that she kept going back to jail was that she kept violating her parole because of trouble finding a job.

“I couldn’t produce pay stubs. I had to pay court costs, fines and restitution,” Bartley said. “Back then, they were charging six dollars for your urine, so mine’s had accumulated and I wouldn’t tell my probation officer that I went back to the point of hustling. But I had to produce pay stubs for the couple of dollars that I did have and I couldn’t.”

When Bartley’s father died, he was addicted to heroin. Her mother was three years clean when she passed in 2009. Bartley said at that point, she began to turn things around. There was no one else for her to lean on and she had to forge her own way.

Bartley showing how she makes paper. Credit: Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Bartley eventually secured work, mostly as a short order cook or cashier. For a time, she worked at the Germantown Food Court. She knew there were resources that could help her, but said she didn’t think her mindset was really there yet.

She decided to do something different. Bartley remembered telling her fellow inmates in Muncy and Cambridge that when she was finally able to get out, she would work on being there for them when they got released.

While working at the food court, Bartley met El Sawyer, an ex-con turned educator and filmmaker, and a couple of other artists from the Village of the Art and Humanities, a part of the Village Community storefront.

Sawyer suggested Bartley check out The Village of Arts and Humanities. That’s where she met Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles, co-directors of the the People’s Paper Co-op, an organization that works with people who have criminal records to develop skills needed to reacclimate themselves into society.

Living life on life’s terms

Faith shows some of the artwork throughout the storefront. Credit: Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Bartley has been working for the organization for three and a half years, creating artwork and teaching people how to make paper. She also works with the People’s Paper and Philadelphia Reentry Think Tank.

As part of her work at The Village, Bartley facilitates a women-in-reentry program, going inside halfway houses for women to recruit them into an internship. These women are given a chance to work with poet laureate Yolanda Wisher and other artists.

“We get to work with artists, we get to write to women who are in solitary confinement at RCF [Riverside Correctional Facility], but they can’t correspond back to us,” Bartley said. “When you’re in solitary confinement, you don’t have access to stationary or stamps, you’re in a fucking hole. So as to shine some light on them, we write to them.”

[pullquote content=”Those COs telling me when I can piss and shit and eat and all that, I ain’t into that no more.” align=”right” /]

To Bartley, there are not a lot reentry programs for women in the city, which is why she wants to focus her efforts on assisting them more.

“I want to get resources for women, I want to go inside halfway houses and help them learn how to co-run a business, make handmade paper, make handmade journals,” Bartley said. “Speak to their experiences, their lived experience being an ex-offender and how it feels… What do you need to thrive back in your community?”

Bartley has been able to correspond with a few friends who have been released from prison this year, who ask her for resources in getting situated or how to regain custody of their kids.

“You have to get yourself together before you get out here and start living life on life’s terms and bang out like a crash dummy,” Bartley said. “See, I keep feeding my spirit and my mind and I’m cool. Those [corrections officers] telling me when I can piss and shit and eat and all that, I ain’t into that no more.”

Each day that Bartley walks through her neighborhood she feels the pressure of her past, walking by the corners she used to sell on.

“I want a ranch style home or a loft, or I want to live down South Street in one of those condos,” Bartley said. “Maybe not even that, send me up to Chestnut Hill, send me somewhere away from where I grew up at, because the influences in this ‘hood can be kind of tempting sometimes. I ain’t going to lie.”