She did 3 stints in prison. Now she heads first-of-its kind transitional home for black women in Portland

Her heroin-addicted mother abandoned her at age 6. She ran away from her father’s home in Kansas City at 13. She served three stints in prison, starting at age 18, the last two in Oregon for assault and first-degree robbery.

Once out, O’Nesha Cochran continued smoking crack and drinking. She got kicked out of several treatment and probation programs for her bad attitude, foul mouth and inability to follow the rules.

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Then she found mentors in other African American women at a Narcotics Anonymous group. That’s when Cochran began to want a better future for herself.

Now 42, Cochran is just seven credits shy of completing her bachelor’s degree in social work and is managing a special 38-bed home in Gresham geared toward helping African American women like her.

She’s working to support their transition back into the community from jail or prison and help them avoid many of the pitfalls she faced.

The home opens Wednesday morning, the first culturally specific transitional home of its kind in Multnomah County for African American women and run by women who have gone through the criminal justice system themselves.

It’s called the Diane Wade House, named after a county parole and probation officer who worked from May 1999 until October 2010, when she died from a seizure.

Cochran first met Wade while she was attending group sessions at the state women’s prison.

“I’ve never forgotten how she made me feel. She made me feel like I could be somebody,’’ Cochran said. “I feel like she’s here with me. It feels really powerful. It feels like this is a privilege, and it’s something I will take seriously.’’

The county is using a $2 million grant that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded to fund the house. The county has contracted with the nonprofit Bridges to Change to manage the house, with peer recovery mentors and around-the-clock residential staff.

The county hopes the home will help reduce its jail population and the system’s racial disparities. Blacks are overrepresented in each stage of the county’s adult criminal justice system — from initial contact and arrest through prosecution, sentencing and parole or probation violations. While they make up only 6 percent of the county’s general population, blacks represent 27 percent of its jail population, according to a county study.

African American women in the county have been sanctioned for violating their probation at a higher rate than white women and at a higher rate than men, according to Abbey Stamp, executive director of the county’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.

And when sanctioned and returned to jail, they spend longer in custody than white women or men, the county found.

“This is a group of people for whom government has really failed over and over again,” said County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We’re not willing to allow that to happen again. These women deserve to have a program developed by them and for them.’’

The county’s Department of Community Justice will refer women on probation or parole to the home. Six of the 38 beds will be reserved for women who are in jail and await hearings to determine if they’re able to help in their own defense.

The residents can stay at the house for up to six months. While there, they’ll be connected to resources for mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, future housing as well as offered classes on parenting, job and life skills. While the home is geared toward African American women on probation or parole, all women are eligible for referral to stay there.

Cochran and other staff put the finishing touches on the house Tuesday to prep it for its debut, scrubbing floors clean and hanging artwork in the dormitory-style home. The Afrocentric focus permeates the home from the decor in the entry’s living room to the bathroom, decorated with shower curtains and bath mats bearing the faces of African American women, to the makeshift salon with hair products for black women.

The house will provide most everything for the women except food – they must buy their own and prepare their meals.

About 11 women have been referred to the program and have been living in a temporary home since mid-December.

Larissa Smith-Williams, 55, has been in the program since Dec. 18. She said she survived on the street as a prostitute and used drugs to dull the constant pain.

“I came in very, very angry. O’Nesha grabbed my hand and just told me that I wasn’t alone,’’ Smith-Williams said as she tried out one of the new home’s salon chairs. “This program has helped teach me to put myself first.’’

Cochran said her main goal is to offer these women hope, having stood in their shoes so many times.

When she was cycling in and out of prison, Cochran said, “I felt like I didn’t deserve anything good so would self-sabotage.”

But Wade and other mentors stepped in.

“They were assertive, not afraid of me,” Cochran said. “They could relate to me, and I didn’t feel so alone. All I ever knew was street life and penitentiary life. I never learned another way. I never learned pro-social behavior. I finally started to believe that I could change when I heard other black women’s stories, and I saw they had houses, jobs, kids.’’

Cochran first got her GED, then an associate degree from Portland Community College. She interned for the county, worked two years as a certified recovery mentor at OHSU Hospital and is completing her bachelor’s degree in social work at Portland State University.

If the Diane Wade House succeeds, the county expects to see fewer African American women from the criminal justice system return to custody and more African American women placed in housing after serving their jail or prison time.

If a similar house had been around when Cochran kept spiraling in and out of jail and prison, she said she would have felt a sense of kinship, respect and encouragement to “get back on my feet.’’

“I’d feel like I was in a great black barbie house with a lot of black sisters,’’ she said.

“I just feel as if I‘m where I’m supposed to be.’’

— Maxine Bernstein

Email at [email protected]

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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