Community & Current Events

Homelessness and prison

By: Jill Buchner

Getty Images Author: Canadian Living Credits: Getty Images

Community & Current Events

Homelessness and prison

By: Jill Buchner
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There's a flaw in our justice system. People are going to prison and ending up homeless.

Samantha* grew up in Halifax with four siblings and two parents who held good jobs, but their seemingly happy home belied violence. Her father was an abusive alcoholic. At 17, Samantha got involved in her own relationship that became abusive, and around the same time, her sister introduced her to crack. "She put a crack pipe to my mouth and showed me how to do it," she says. "I was addicted right there." In the years that followed, she developed a skill for shoplifting to make money to maintain her habit. And, inevitably, she got caught.

At 23, Samantha found herself asking a judge for federal time for her theft charge as a way to escape. "I wanted to separate myself from the abusive relationship because I didn't see myself getting out of it." After completing two years at Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont., and being abruptly moved out of a halfway house when granted full parole, Samantha became homeless for the first time and sought refuge at the YWCA. "I did well, but I got back into crack," she says.

She moved to Toronto and managed to keep herself afloat by perpetuating the cycle of addiction and theft, with many breaks of jail time in between. But each time Samantha was released, it was like starting from scratch. She would be evicted from her apartment, all her belongings cleaned out by family members who depended on her theft for support, and she would be forced back into dysfunctional family settings or shelters.

Today, Samantha is in her 40s and has been in and out of jail for the last 20 years. She exudes confidence and holds her head high when she shares that she's been clean for months. Her smile lights up the room when she talks about her six-year-old son, who is in her mother's care. But when she brings up her latest struggle to find housing since being released from jail a few months ago, her face falls. "It was the most saddening experience I endured in the last 10 years," she says. "Not being housed was worse than not looking after my three kids. I actually didn't know which way to turn."

After spending three years on a waiting list for an addictions housing program, she was nearly denied a spot because she had taken the initiative to quit using. With the help of the Elizabeth Fry program and an advocate to support her through the process, she fought back and got her spot, but she's scared the bachelor apartment will never be a home for her son and will expose her to new temptation. "I don't like the area. It's very drug-oriented. But where else am I going to go?" she asks, choking back tears.

Even if Samantha could scrape together the $900 a month it would cost for her own apartment in Torontoplus last month's rent depositshe would never make it past the landlord's salary check and would have trouble finding a job with her criminal background. "It's almost like there's no hope for you," she says.

Prison time can lead to homelessness

Samantha is not alone. According to a 2008 study from the University of Waterloo, only a small number of women in federal prison had homes they expected to return to upon release. And in a Toronto survey, 14 percent of homeless individuals said they had experienced "an interaction with corrections" in the last six months.

"People are becoming homeless because they are in custody," says Amber Kellen, director of community initiatives policy and research at the John Howard Society of Toronto, which advocates for changes in the justice system and helps incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society. She explains that, "even for those who have short stays in provincial jails (the average stay in Ontario is roughly one month), people can come out to find their home and all of their belongings gone because they've been unable to pay rent." Sometimes individuals also receive court orders to stay away from areas where they were criminally involved, which can preclude them from going home. "In many cases, their only choice is to access the shelter system or perhaps stay with a friend who may or may not be criminally involved," says Kellen.  

Even the innocent can have their lives turned upside down. "Sometimes the judge will withdraw their charges or find the person was wrongly accused. But, in the meantime, that person might have lost their job, house, custody of their child," says Kellen. "This is how we treat people who are technically innocent."

In a study done by the John Howard Society of Toronto, 32 percent of incarcerated individuals expected to be homeless upon release, while another 12 percent didn't know where they would go. "I think there is an assumption that people who go to jail deserve whatever they get," says Kellen. "But if you look at who is in our jails, you will see extremely marginalized populationsnew immigrant populations, young black men, people who are very poor, people who have mental health issues, people who have substance abuse issues. Our jails warehouse people who have fallen through the cracks of other systems."

Gemma Napoli, executive director of Elizabeth Fry Toronto, says women like Samantha are particularly at risk. "A lot of women have suffered trauma and abuse that has led them into the criminal justice system in the first place," she says. "When many women are homeless upon release, they feel forced back into an abusive environment or a triggering environment for substance abuse or trauma." Many incarcerated women are also mothers who want to reconnect with their kids upon release. "Sometimes, they need to show progress in order to get their children back, and a lot of that depends on stable housing," says Napoli.

When people become homeless, their risk for reoffending increases, both by nature of living on the street (through property offences or urinating in public) and because they might return to crime for survival. "I know of clients who do go back to jail in the winter months to get out of the cold," says Kellen.

"Housing is a basic and simple need we all have," says Napoli. "And in order for us to be successful in the community and contribute positively, we have to have that basic need."

*Name has been changed.

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