Jail is not a solution for our homelessness problem

York University
October 25, 2010

When we talk about the Canadian response to homelessness, we usually refer to things like emergency shelters, charitable food programs, drop ins and other supports.  One of the things we don’t talk about enough is the relationship between homelessness and criminal justice. That is, one of the central features of our response is the use of policing, courts and jails as a way of dealing with homelessness.

A recently released report by the John Howard society presents a powerful indictment (if I can use court language) of this situation.  In their study, Homeless and Jailed, Jailed and Homeless, the JHS research team interviewed 363 sentenced prisoners, and they uncovered some disturbing findings.  For instance, I think that many Canadians would be surprised to learn that roughly one in every five prisoners was homeless immediately prior to winding up in jail.  

What about when they are to be released?  What these reseachers found was that 85.5% of those who were formerly homeless anticipated being homeless upon release.  Worse still, 16.4% of those who were housed before serving jail time anticipated being homeless upon release.  In other words, incarceration is likely producing homelessness.

The writers argue: "Homeless prisoners are a vulnerable group – they tend to be older, 22.3 percent are 50 years of age or older. A high proportion of them, 43.3 percent, have severe health impairments. Most of them rely on income support programs, whose benefits they lose while in jail; in many cases, they must re-apply for these benefits after they are discharged."

So what can we learn from all this?  Here are some key things to think about:

First, our reliance on using "emergency services" as our key response to homelessness in Canada (as opposed to preventing people from becoming homeless, or rapidly rehousing them) puts homeless people in harms way, and leads to a cycle of homelessness / prison / homelessness.

Second, we need to acknowledge that a central feature of our response to homelessness is the criminalization of the homeless. Whether through ticketing, special laws like the Safe Streets Act, or local efforts to ‘clean up the streets’, we use the justice system as a central strategy to deal with homelessness and extreme poverty.  We need to ask, ‘why are we putting so many homeless people in jail?”  This is a pretty expensive way to deal with the problem.

Finally, we need to some serious reforms in corrections if we want to address the problem of homelessness.  One of the outcomes of the ‘get tough on crime’ movement has been a set of reforms that reduce in-prison rehabilitation programs, and undermine effective discharge planning.  Discharge planning helps prepare prisoners for release from prision (and the vast majority do get released!) and should include ensuring people have a safe place to stay.

We know from other research (here, here and here) that inadequate discharge planning often leads to homelessness, and that ex-prisoners who become homeless do less well than those who are able to secure housing.  In a sense, the lack of effective discharge planning becomes a ‘crime production’ policy and practice.

The cycle between prison and jail is one that we must address, and can stop.

For additional reading, see the Homeless Hub's Legal and Justice Issues topic:

- Criminalization of homelessness
- Corrections and rehabilitation programs

Also see the Safe Streets Act, 1999, of Ontario.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also now President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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