September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

When women fresh out of prison step off the bus at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Los Angeles, Susan Burton is often standing by, ready to shepherd them back into society. “They’re dealing with the excitement and anxiety of freedom,” says Burton, 50, “and with the drug dealers and pimps waiting to get a piece of them. A lot of times they just don’t make it.”

She speaks from harsh experience. Six times in 16 years Burton, a former prostitute and cocaine addict, left prison and boarded that L.A.-bound bus. Five times she didn’t make it past the bus depot before succumbing to the streets. Her story is not unusual: According to government statistics, 67 percent of all ex-cons—both women and men—are rearrested within three years. “That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to helping other women coming out,” says Burton, who has been drug-free for five years. “So they’ll know that someone is taking them somewhere safe.”

That would be her own home, a modest three-bedroom bungalow in Watts. Through A New Way of Life, the nonprofit program she started in 1999, Burton so far has provided shelter, social services and hope to 82 women, most of whom have been referred by public agencies. Eight to 10 parolees at a time share the house; some stay as long as a year. In addition to household chores, the women—who typically come to her with just $200 (minus bus fare), a few personal possessions in a paper bag and no prospects—must attend 12-step programs, undergo periodic drug tests, and either work or go to school. Eventually, each is expected to contribute $400 monthly toward expenses. In exchange they receive room, board, transportation, clothing and moral support. “She gives us strength and hope,” says Gwendolyn Ray, 22, who did time for drug possession. “She knows we’re not bad people. We’ve just done bad things.”

To date, two-thirds of her guests have managed to keep straight. Those results have been lauded by state and private groups, including the California Wellness Violence Program, which donates $24,000 annually toward her $50,000 operating costs. “The first six months are critical for the parolee,” says Marilyn Montenegro of the National Association of Social Workers. “Susan doesn’t just talk, she delivers.”

Burton demands that her charges do likewise. “Susan is gentle and soft-spoken,” says Sadye Walton, 20, who served 3½ years for robbing a woman at gunpoint. “But she can be hard-spoken when she wants to get something across to you.”

Burton learned that toughness early on. Reared in public housing in East L.A., Burton—who says her late father was an abusive alcoholic—began drinking at 12. By 13, she was popping pills and a year later dropped out of school and gave birth to her daughter, Antoinette Carter, now 35. Six months later she left the baby with her own mother, now deceased, and hit the streets. For five years she was a prostitute, then mistress to a drug dealer. After their 1983 breakup she turned to crime to support her cocaine habit. Burton was arrested for drug possession the first time that year and was in and out of prison until 1997, when she willingly entered a private facility for substance abusers. The nurturing environment and 12-step philosophy transformed her. “I was there 98 days,” she says. “That’s all I needed to give me the foundation to rebuild my life”—and the inspiration to do the same for others.

For the next two years Burton worked as a caretaker for the elderly, saving enough for a down payment on her home. She also set about repairing her fractured relationship with the daughter she once abandoned. Says Antoinette, a Pacific Bell manager: “She has become the mother I always wanted.”

Though the single Burton recently moved to a one-bedroom apartment, she and her shih tzu, Puffy, spend most of their time at the bungalow with her boarders. “When I see a woman make it over all the obstacles,” says Burton, “my heart just sings.”

Christina Cheakalos

Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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