August 10, 2013
For 37 years, Prisoners' Justice Day in Canada has stood for, and been hailed as, a somber reminder of the unnecessary deaths of Edward Nalon on August 10th 1974 and Robert Landers in May of 1976. Both men died while being detained in Millhaven Prison’s Maximum Security segregation unit. Initially, the recognition of August 10th as Prisoners' Justice Day was started by a group of inmates being held at the same prison on the first anniversary of Nalon's death. However, it has since expanded into the community and prisons across the nation and it is utilized to highlight the conditions that inmates face on a daily basis, as well as a day to remember all those men and women who have died behind prison walls. Prisoners' Justice Day events have been used to educate the public and to advocate for changes regarding the treatment of those in custody and the need for prison reform.
The John Howard Society of Toronto and many of its affiliates across the nation recognize with fervor the need to have prisoner’s fundamental rights acknowledged and upheld. John Howard himself (2 September 1726 - 20 January 1790) was a prison reformer and an English political figure who fought tirelessly to overhaul the prison system having not only observed but also experienced some of the atrocities that took place within so many of the goals throughout the country and abroad.
To this day, the affiliates of the John Howard Societies across Canada seek to develop understanding of and effective responses to the problems of crime and its causes. John Howard Society organizations offer programs and services that are geared towards reducing recidivism rates and increasing community safety through the provision of addiction counselling, anger management, pre-release prison support and assistance to find and maintain housing. Many affiliates also advocate for safe, affordable housing, solutions to poverty and ways to enhance the quality of life for those affected by the criminal justice system.
In 2010, The John Howard Society of Toronto undertook and compiled a research study that focused on the housing trajectories of inmates in Toronto's three remand centres. The data obtained was used to inform the results of the study entitled “Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless” which looked at the correlation between incarceration and homelessness. In addition to examining some of the issues facing men in custody who identified as being homeless at the time of their release, the study also captured information about their immediate and anticipated service needs in the months after release. Other research conducted by the John Howard Society of Toronto found that incarceration was a catalyst for homelessness in the GTA and that anywhere from ⅓ to more than ½ of inmates leaving custody would have no fixed address upon the completion of their short term sentences.
In 2013, we know still, that there stands a need for reform and the need for fundamental rights, such as accommodations upon release, to be recognized fully. We understand how through appropriate and meaningful community supports, those involved in the criminal justice system can reintegrate into society with positive results inevitably improving their quality of life. This is not simply a dream but a reality that can be achieved with the support of communities, agencies and regulating bodies who understand that a sense of security and hope, can greatly improve the life of those who at one time, lacked hope. We strive to achieve this through the work we do for those who have little ability to assist themselves in what must seem like, an unforgiving world and we acknowledge and thank those who share this vision.
For more information please visit our Topic - Legal & Justice Issues: Criminalization of Homelessness.
Ainsley Cripps has been an employee of the John Howard Society of Toronto for the past seven years and has worked in the capacity of Resettlement Court Worker and Native Inmate Liaison Officer. She currently works in all three of Toronto's Remand Centres overseeing the Native Program for First Nations, Metis and Inuit individuals looking for traditional healing and discharge planning. Ainsley is of Mohawk descent and is very ingrained within Toronto's Native community, assisting with Discharge Planning and community referrals to help inmates reintegrate into the community, successfully.
June 14, 2011
The headline in the Saturday Globe was disturbing enough: Residents of Toronto public housing four times more likely to be murder victims.
But I found myself equally rattled by the 285 on-line comments that followed. There were vitriolic references to “welfare bums,” the “psychiatrically deranged,” “gang-bangers, drug dealers, crack whores and other miscreants.” But if I looked past the mean-spiritedness, I could see a consensus opinion that even progressives might share: that social housing is simply unworkable, and that low-income neighbourhoods – especially those with black majorities -- will inevitably be breeding grounds for crime.
Earlier this year, I read a book that challenged this view. It is the tantalizingly-entitled When Public Housing was Paradise, J.S. Fuerst's compilation of 79 first-person accounts from people who lived or worked in Chicago’s public housing in the 1940s to 1970s.
The communities created by the Chicago Housing Authority were all, by current wisdom, destined to fail. The new-built estates were large and isolated – Regent Park-style low-rises punctuated with high-rise towers. They were overwhelmingly black communities, drawn from the tenements on Chicago’s South Side and migrants from the southern US. They were not mixed-income communities either. The CHA selected families – one third of them women-led -- exclusively from the bottom third of the income scale.
An incubator for leadership
Yet Fuerst credits public housing for creating Chicago’s black middle class, providing an “incubator for leadership” for African Americans. Account after account describes the children of stockyard workers and unemployed widows who are now lawyers, teachers, business leaders, police officers and senior public officials.
What made Chicago Housing Authority a launching pad to success? The tenants’ stories are filled with praise for the clean, well-managed buildings and grounds, where prizes were given for the best gardens. They spoke about housing managers who knew everyone’s name, encouraged local initiatives, and found jobs for teenagers. They spoke about the schools, churches, clubs, sports teams, and womens’ associations that were integral to the community’s strength. And they talked about the community itself, where everyone would look out for local children, and did not hesitate to pick up the phone if they spotted trouble.
Today, public housing in Chicago and elsewhere is seen as anything but paradise. What went wrong?
The answers offered by the CHA’s former residents and staff will induce squirms in Toronto’s right- and left-wing readers alike. Here they are:
Abandoning tenant screening.
In CHA’s early days, preference was given to applicants with the lowest incomes in the worst housing conditions. But only those prepared to pay their rent, keep their homes clean, and supervise their children were accepted.
Once in the housing, the management strictly enforced standards, and so did other tenants. As one tenant recalled, “We kids cleaned those halls. And if somebody messed up our hall, we were quick to tell them, ‘Get that paper off that floor. Don’t you do that on my stairs, cause I got to clean it Saturday.’”
By the 1970s, federal rules forced CHA to give preference to the poorest of the poor, with no other screening. Today, tenants and former tenants quoted in the book say that “destructive and dangerous” tenants – anywhere from 10 - 30 per cent of tenants – need to be evicted to allow a return to healthy community life. Draconian as this move is, they argue it would be less disruptive than Chicago’s current practice of evicting all tenants to demolish entire buildings.
The introduction of income limits.
Public housing originally offered affordable rents for working families. But when a rent-geared-to-income system was introduced in the late 1960s, working families received a rent hike with each pay increase, and the most successful families moved out. Public housing was transformed from successful working class communities to the “people left behind.”
The loss of visionary leadership.
The Chicago Housing Authority’s first Executive Director, Elizabeth Wood, gathered around her an energetic team of the “brightest and best.” But in 1954, she was dismissed, ostensibly for “management inefficiency,” but more likely because her anti-segragation convictions put her at odds with her board.
After her departure, the most talented staff became demoralized and drifted away. To return to its former success, says Fuerst, public housing would need a cadre of employees with the same dedication, competence and sense of mission as the early staff.
What about us?
Chicago in 1950 is not Toronto in 2011. Yet we have too have a contingent of striving families, many of them immigrants, who are poorly-housed with very low incomes. We too have seen the decline of stable working class neighbourhoods into “the housing of last resort” – quite possibly for the same policy reasons that led to decline in Chicago’s public housing.
So what if . . .?
What if we explicitly designed public housing to vault low-income families into middle-class success?
- What rent polices would we set? How would we create opportunities to build savings?
- What institutions would provide the “incubators for leadership?”
- Would we be prepared to favour “strivers” (to use Fuerst’s term)? And if we did, what about those who don’t make the cut? Could we accept that private rental housing, or shelters, or the couches of family and friends, would become the real “housing of last resort?”
Well, what do you think?
Joy Connelly started working in social housing 30 years ago doing street outreach in downtown Toronto. Since then she has managed a housing co-op, developed new co-ops, and acted as the communications manager for the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. Over the past ten years, Joy has worked as an independent consultant on over 130 projects for federal, provincial and municipal agencies and many social housing providers. Joy's blog, Opening the Window, provides fresh ideas for social housing in Ontario.
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.
September 09, 2010
When you hear the word “homelessness,” what comes to mind? If you are like most people, you probably think of the men who sleep on the hot-air grates in downtown Toronto. That is the image that so often accompanies media stories about homelessness.
Several things about that image hide the reality of homelessness for many Canadians. The first part is the person’s gender and age. There are many homeless women and children too, although in their case it seldom takes the form of sleeping on the street. That is another problem with the image – it equates homelessness with street life. In reality, homelessness can take multiple forms, including moving from shelter to shelter or “couch-surfing” (that is, staying with friends when one loses one’s own home).
The image usually features a solitary figure, which obscures the fact that entire families may become homeless. Indeed, some of those who appear to be alone may simply be separated from their families by homelessness. Finally, the setting (downtown in a big city) is a cliché. Homelessness exists in towns and cities of all sizes, in the suburbs and in rural areas, and in all the provinces of Canada.
Last year, I helped edit an online book collecting the best Canadian research available on homelessness. The thirty chapters encompassed the experiences of women and their children, Aboriginal people, frail seniors, youth, immigrants (some of whom become homeless shortly after arriving in Canada). They included research on food insecurity, social stigma, moneymaking strategies, child custody, the physical and mental health problems of homeless people, and the intersection of homelessness and crime, as well as promising efforts to reduce homelessness or alleviate some of its effects.
Did we cover the full spectrum of the problem? Not even close. This week we added another ten chapters to fill the many gaps.
One important new chapter is about homelessness among women in Canada’s North, a particularly urgent issue. Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut share a high cost of living, limited employment opportunities, underdeveloped infrastructure, and a shortage of social services. Women who lose their housing have few places to turn. Yet we hear very little about their plight in the rest of Canada.
Another chapter deals with homelessness among Aboriginal peoples in the Prairie provinces. This group spends a lot of time on the move, and many go back and forth between urban centres that offer work, services, and a wider range of housing options, and their home communities, which offer a connection to family and traditions. Yet in neither place are these people completely at home.
A third chapter looks at homeless women in small cities and towns in Ontario, social isolation, low-quality social services, and weak public transit infrastructure create barriers to seeking help.
We also consider the ethics of research into homelessness. It is important to understand and communicate the experiences of people who often have no voice in society, but it is equally important not to appropriate their voices. Many of the chapters contain the words of homeless people, men and women, young and old, describing their stories and tryng to make sense of an arduous life in a hostile world.
In presenting these diverse perspectives on homelessness, we hope to remind Canadians that homeless has not disappeared, even though the recent economic downturn has meant that many people are too worried about their own futures to pay attention to the plight of those even less fortunate.
At the same time, we stress that although homelessness affects a diverse group of people, it is not a complex problem. Yes, you read that correctly: it is not a complex problem.
After all these years of research and policy analysis and documenting the lived experience of those affected and those who provide support services, we know what the causes of the problem are. That means we know what the solutions are.
When individuals or families run into serious difficulty in one or more of the three key areas that support a decent standard of living, they may find themselves unhoused and potentially on a downward spiral. The three areas are: housing, income, and support services. Groups already facing inequities, discrimination, and violence are often the first to face difficulties in these areas when the economic tide changes.
An adequate standard of living means not only that good-quality health care is available to everyone, but also access to adequate housing, employment at a living wage, and essential support services must also be available for everyone, not just those who can afford them – and that systemic inequities are addressed in social policy.
We know what we need. We need social protections that prevent people from becoming unhoused. We need programs that ensure that no one will be unhoused for more than a very brief period should a crisis of some sort arise. We need policies that correct historic and systemic inequities, and that provide adequate, affordable and secure housing, an adequate income or income support when needed, and adequate support services if these are required (for addictions, mental health, and so on). Only then will we begin to solve the problem of homelessness.
J. David Hulchanski is Associate Director, Research, for the Cities Centre and Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, and co-editor of an electronic book on homelessness, Finding Home, available on the Homeless Hub, www.homelesshub.ca/FindingHome.