Thursday, August 12, 2010
John Howard Society report: Homeless prisoners on the rise
On a sticky day in June, Eric Cromwell changed into the clothes he’d worn when he was arrested two months earlier on an assault charge and walked out of the Toronto West Detention Centre on Disco Rd.
He was given a TTC token but possessed little else.
He did have a bachelor apartment where his rent is automatically deducted from his welfare cheque, but that’s where the latest trouble had occurred. There’d been an incident with a neighbour and conditions placed on him forbid him from going anywhere near home.
He’d been in and out of jail a number of times, and on this occasion, as had been the case before, he had no home to go to. But he knew where to go. He took public transit to the Maxwell Meighen shelter at Queen and Sherbourne Sts.
“Down here, to me, it’s like home,” says Cromwell, 32. “I know where to go. I know where to get food. I know how to survive.”
Each year, more people — mostly men — are leaving Toronto jails with nowhere to call home and no plan or supports to keep them from heading back to jail, according to a report to be released on Aug. 10 by the John Howard Society of Toronto.
One in five prisoners is homeless when he heads to jail, and nearly one in three has no home to return to when he gets out, according to the study, which involved interviews with 363 inmates who were serving sentences of less than two years and were days away from being released.
They homeless prisoners instead head to downtown shelters, live on the street or couch-surf with friends, often returning to areas and conditions that landed them in trouble in the first place.
One in 10 prisoners said they had no idea where they would go upon release.
The report estimates that hundreds of people are in this situation, and cost-benefit studies have shown it is cheaper to provide supports and affordable housing than to deal with the “homeless prisoner” population.
“It’s the modern version of the poorhouse,” says Sylvia Novac, a researcher with the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, who co-authored the John Howard report. “These are people who had nothing to begin with. They’re worn down, in this middle-aged group, and they have health issues. These people need a lot of help. These people need housing.”
The report, titled “Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless,” makes a number of recommendations, including increased funding for non-profit agencies to provide prisoner discharge planning that would help place inmates directly into rent-subsidized dwellings.
The study is being released to coincide with Prisoners Justice Day, an event to remember prisoners who have died in custody. It was funded by Human Resources and Development Canada.
Unlike prisoners serving longer sentences in federal prisons, inmates in provincial jails have little or no access to programs that would help them reintegrate into society. Even short stays in jail can lead to homelessness, the report found.
Jail stays as brief as five days can lead to job loss, and longer terms cause many to lose homes and result in a suspension of benefits that must be reapplied for upon release.
Eric Cromwell ’s face breaks into a wide, mischievous smile, and he says that only two people have ever taken his picture: his mother and the police.
His troubles began in his final year of high school, when the black man says he was accused of assaulting a classmate who had made racist comments. He was charged and expelled. Cromwell was two credits short of getting his diploma, which he never completed.
In 2003, he found himself without a home. A few years later, he served eight months for a robbery that he says was motivated by a need for drugs. Upon release, he went to stay with a relative, but after only a few days was back in jail for breaking a condition of his release and was also facing fresh charges of assault and theft.
After that stint in jail, a housing worker with the City of Toronto’s Streets to Homes program helped him find a bachelor apartment, which he now can’t return to because of his latest trouble with the law.
On a recent, sun-scorched day, Cromwell and his girlfriend, Sarah, 20, did what they do every day: they killed time by walking around, sitting in parks and availing themselves of free food provided by places such the Good Shepherd Centre on Queen St. E.
“You can go homeless, but you can’t go hungry down here,” says Sarah. “There’s always food.”
There is also crack cocaine. The two try to avoid the temptation of downtown dealers.
Sarah, too, has been in and out of jail, or the “Hilton in Milton” as she calls the Vanier Centre for Women.
She says she has been on the streets since she was 12 and receives no social benefits, because she has neither identification nor a mailing address. She has made money turning tricks and has just finished two years of probation. One of the conditions she had to abide by was to stay out of the front passenger seat of cars.
The two sit in the shade on the grounds of the Metropolitan United Church at the corner of Queen and Church. Other homeless people doze nearby on the grass. Three police officers on bicycles stop and rouse one of them and ask questions. Two of the officers know Sarah by name.
Eric says he feels fortunate because he has a support worker, but he knows of many men who cycle in and out of jail and are homeless. He says often they land back in because they have violated conditions of their release, such as being out after curfew. “I say the system is effed-up.”
Says Sarah: “They don’t care where you’re going to go when you get out; they just care about keeping you in.”
Time to move on. They walk north and east. Eric bends to tie Sarah’s shoelace and as he often does, lifts her tiny frame into his arms and carries her for a block, kissing her along the way.
They find more shade under a tree in an empty schoolyard on the edge of Regent Park, where Eric spent some of his childhood. Sarah pulls a fork and microwaveable meal of red curry chicken from her purse and digs in. They face the street and watch life go by.
“Yeah,” says Eric with a smirk, “so this is the life.”
He steps away and points to a building off in the distance. It’s the apartment building where he lived, where his belongings remain, and to which he cannot return. From his 12th floor balcony, he could see the “three Dons — the Don River, the Don Valley Parkway and the Don Jail.”
“Right now, I’m paying rent for a place I can’t stay,” he says.
His support worker is trying to find him a new home that will bring relief from the streets and shelters.
“For me, it’s freedom. I can go and I can lock the door. I have no worries.”
Homeless prisoners: By the numbers
22.9 - per cent of prisoners who had no fixed address before going to jail
32.2 - per cent of prisoners who said they had no home to return to
12.4 - per cent who didn’t know where they would go
43.3 - per cent of homeless prisoners with serious health issues
22.3 - per cent who are 50 years old or older
2 months - average stay in jail of respondents
Source: Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless, John Howard Society of Toronto