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‘Freedom Commons Academy’ Provides Former Prisoners Housing and Structured Re-entry Services in Syracuse

by Casey J. Bastian

Phyllis Riles’ daily life is the embodiment of her favorite Gandhi quote: “Where there’s love, there’s life.” Such a belief is the place from which her life’s work at the Freedom Commons Academy (“FCA”) springs forth. The housing development is for those recently released from incarceration with no access to housing. Located in Syracuse, New York, FCA has operated as a partnership between the Syracuse Housing Authority and the Center for Community Alternatives (“CCA”) since 2020. By providing three levels of housing: emergency, temporary, and permanent supportive housing, the FCA offers those released from prison access to a nurturing and safe living environment.

The residents are mixed, with some having criminal records and others having no criminal backgrounds. Modeled on a project by The Fortune Society (“TFS”) Castle Gardens in Harlem, New York, the FCA requires a minimum of 35 hours of productive activity per week. This productive activity can be working a job, volunteering, or taking part in specialized programming. Those residents on probation are required to be in their homes by 8 pm and anyone else by 10 pm.

“It’s not a control thing; It’s preparing them for the next step. I consciously make sure this doesn’t feel like a minimum-security prison,” said Riles. Andre Ward, the associate vice president of The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at TFS, who provides technical support for the FCA project and agrees with Riles. Ward says, “Simulating a structured environment that has positive activities in it to help build the capacity of an individual to live a life of contribution is essentially what [FCA] is designed to do for people coming home.”

One such person is 54-year-old Frank Czeresko. He was released after serving time for a “Driving While Intoxicated” conviction and is grateful that the supportive housing was available. The FCA brought Czeresko to what they describe as “new mindset of acceptance and faith that the universe will place him where he is needed.”

“I’ve talked to people that I know that stayed at the mission and that are still on the streets, and I have to say, if it wasn’t for this place, it would’ve been a lot more challenging for me to be able to get re-established,” said Czeresko.

The CCA is hoping to secure greater funding for the project and hopes to have the FCA legally defined as “transitional housing.” This will open up funds from the state and federal governments rather than relying solely on private funding.

According to Kelly Gonzalez, deputy director at the CCA, “There should be state money for transitional housing, to allow more programs to be able to house folks coming home from prison for longer periods of time.”

For now, Riles will continue to make a difference in the lives of as many of those people as she can. “Here at the Freedom Commons Academy, we’re like family,” says Riles. 


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