There's No place Called Home for Ex-cons

Written by Posted On Wednesday, 25 July 2007 17:00

People who spend time in jail, even if they are acquitted of committing a crime, face losing their homes and get little or no help finding housing when they are released, say two recent Canadian studies.

"There's a direct relationship between incarceration and homelessness," says Bill O'Grady of the University of Guelph, co-author of one of the studies. "If inmates don't receive discharge planning, they are released from jail without housing, without employment and without a lot of family support. Sometimes all they have are the coveralls they're wearing and a bus token. They end up turning to crime just to survive."

Working with Steve Gaetz of York University in Toronto, O'Grady interviewed more than 100 male inmates and people who had been released from prison. Half of them had experienced homelessness, and half said they had received no help of any kind in preparing for their release.

O'Grady says 60 per cent of Ontario's jail population consists of people who have not been convicted, but are waiting in custody for a court date. They are unable to work and meet rent or mortgage payments. "The longer you're in custody, the greater the chance that you will have lost your job and your home when you get out," he says.

A report by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) says that other factors that prevent ex-cons from finding housing include a lack of education, addiction issues, mental health issues and previous homelessness. "Furthermore, ex-prisoners may be released into communities far from home, possibly without identification papers, and they may have restrictive parole conditions that impact their housing search," says the report.

It says that "in most provinces, landlords can legally discriminate against those with criminal records. High-quality private sector housing is, therefore, largely 'off-limits.'" The report makes the controversial suggestion that legislation could be passed "including laws that prevent landlords from discriminating on the basis of a criminal record."

The general public has little sympathy for ex-cons, and there's usually a lot of community resistance if it's known that a halfway house or transitional residence for inmates is being located in the neighbourhood. A 1998 paper by the John Howard Society of Alberta says, "Fear of crime among Canadians has risen dramatically over the last few years although it is disproportionate to the actual crime rate. Services for offenders tend to be perceived as more detrimental to community life that services for other special needs clients such as the disabled or the developmentally handicapped. Studies have shown that neighbourhood hostility toward correctional facilities in the community is based on fear and lack of information."

Statistics Canada reports that the country's overall national crime rate, based on incidents reported to police, hit its lowest point in over 25 years in 2006, driven by a decline in non-violent crime.

While some communities have halfway houses and transitional residences to help integrate inmates back into society, the CMHC report says these facilities are generally available only to those who are on a conditional release. Supportive housing is in short supply and subsidized housing has long waiting lists. "As a result, ex-prisoners tend to live in substandard private housing, such as rundown rooming houses in high-risk neighbourhoods," says the report.

Many of the services that have been found to work are "uncommon or non-existent" in Canada, says the report. They include programs that help inmates to retain their housing while in jail; re-entry planning that begins as soon as the inmate is sentenced; programming that specifically targets inmates who are likely to be homeless when released; transfers of offenders to pre-release facilities near where they intend to live, so they can begin to re-connect with family and look for employment opportunities; and better use of community services within the jails to deal with mental illness and addiction.

While there is discharge planning in place for those being released from federal prisons, the report says that British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have all cut routine discharge planning. At the federal level, gradual release programs using halfway houses are being used, which gives inmates an opportunity to search for housing. At the provincial level, "there seems to be a trend away from gradual release," says the report.

It also points out a need for housing and support services for youth and for elderly offenders who are released from prison.

O'Grady and Gaetz recommend in their report that all inmates receive discharge planning before their release dates, and that discharge planning be extended to people who are not convicted but are kept in custody for months awaiting a court date.

"It's in the best interest of the public," says O'Grady. "They are eventually going to get out, and if they get out with little or no discharge planning, then a lot of them will end up re-offending."

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Jim Adair

Jim Adair has been writing about Canadian real estate, home building and renovation issues for more than 40 years. He is the former editor of Canada’s leading trade magazine for real estate professionals, as well as several home building, décor and renovation titles. You can contact him at [email protected]

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