The criminal justice system is associated with homelessness. Inmates across Canada often end up experiencing homelessness after being discharged from prison, due to lack of access to housing, employment and health-based supports (e.g. for substance use or mental health problems). At the same time, many people experiencing homelessness end up in prison due to a combination of mental health and substance use issues, a reliance on survival strategies (e.g. panhandling and sleeping in public places) and higher surveillance by police due to their visibility on the streets. This creates a revolving door scenario whereby incarceration and experiences of homelessness are an individual’s only two realities.
In Canada, the federal government incarcerates inmates with sentences of more than two years. The provincial government is responsible for people with sentences of less than two years and people on remand. Each inmate has a different set of challenges associated with housing and employment, health and mental health issues, violence and substance use, etc. For example, upon admission to federal penitentiaries, more than 60% of offenders have an identified educational need, meaning they have not graduated from high school, and/or have a formal education of grade 8 or less. Furthermore, 60% of inmates have employment needs, meaning they are either chronically underemployed or unemployed. These challenges make re-entry into a community, upon release from remand or incarceration, very difficult. Evidence suggests that three main programs are helpful in mediating the risks to the individual and community: 1) discharge planning; 2) in-prison support programs; and, 3) post-release supports.
Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, the burden of supporting prisoner re-entry falls on the shoulders of community-based service providers for those experiencing homelessness. Shelters, drop-ins and soup kitchens – although not mandated or funded to do so – are tasked with mediating the complicated transition from corrections to mainstream life, without adequate staff training and support. Regardless of whether improper discharge planning results in a first-time incidence of homelessness, or continues a pattern of cyclical or chronic homelessness, once back on the street the individual has a greater likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system, and the cycle continues. For adults with jail sentences of six months or more, the recidivism rate is at 37.4% (2013/2014). High quality corrections programs, discharge planning and transitional supports must be in place for inmates, including longer-term remand inmates (pre-trial, but in custody), to help reduce homelessness and re-entry to the criminal justice system.
People experiencing homelessness, and those with mental illnesses, are being detained in remand centres in Canada. Once imprisoned, or otherwise held in the custody of the correctional system, their prospects are not improved. The environment in many facilities may contribute to mental illness or addiction, the recurrence or worsening of symptoms of these disorders, and suicide. According to the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator for 2014-2015, more than one third of male offenders meet the criteria for a concurrent disorder, meaning that they experience the effects of mental health disorders simultaneously with the problems associated with substance abuse and addiction. Risks of violence and death, separation from family and friends, and worries about parole reviews or transfers to other facilities can challenge one’s mental health. Individuals with existing mental health disorders will tend to have fewer personal resources to cope with stressors, resulting in the potential exacerbation of their disorders.