While there is no explicit mention of people who have been involved with the justice system, the good news about the Government of Canada’s recently released Reaching Home Strategy is that it introduces bold changes and a human rights-based approach. Further, this approach was detailed by the Minister of Children, Families, and Social Development, highlighting that:
A human rights-based approach to housing is one that focuses on ensuring that every Canadian has access to a safe and affordable place to call home. It is an approach that is integrally linked to…homelessness, poverty and the need to create opportunities for all Canadians to thrive. It is also an approach that is grounded in the core principles of inclusion, accountability, participation and non-discrimination. (emphasis added).
This is exactly the kind of statement that can support progressive change within the community corrections sector for people who have been in conflict with the law. Many voluntary sector organizations like St. Leonard’s Society of Canada (SLSC) take mission-driven, evidence-informed approaches to researching and promoting “what works” in community corrections. SLSC’s research findings have repeatedly been linked to effective housing supports for sentenced people exiting Canadian penitentiaries, and those discharged from halfway houses.
Formerly incarcerated people who experience homelessness do not earn sympathy from most Canadians, particularly in comparison to those identified as having the greatest need. The launch of the National Housing Strategy indicated that a Federal Housing Advocate and National Housing Council will be established. When appointed, it is critical that they consider that the majority of those identified as being in the greatest need – i.e. homeless women, seniors, newcomers, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, veterans, youth, and people with mental health or addictions challenges – comprise many of those incarcerated within Canada’s jails and penitentiaries. Given this, it is essential that the inclusion of justice-involved persons are built into their mandate. This is well established by the Correctional Service of Canada, which has indicated:
- Approximately 75% of people entering the prison system struggle with serious substance abuse;
- A significant percentage of incarcerated men and women are identified as having severe mental illness;
- A high prevalence of learning disabilities and challenges with day-to-day functioning; and,
- Indigenous Peoples are vastly overrepresented at all points in the criminal justice system.
As outlined in the COH’s Framework for Homelessness Prevention, people exiting public systems like correctional facilities are highly vulnerable to becoming homeless which serves as a key point of intervention for homelessness prevention efforts. Of particular concern are the high rates of aging and elderly people who are incarcerated in Canada without adequate supports inside prison, or in the community when they are released. Unfortunately, outcomes for justice involved youth are not much better. Youth released from detention/open custody facilities face significant barriers to housing – especially since their justice involvement often prevents them from accessing youth shelter options.
SLSC has been encouraged by studies that demonstrate the bidirectional relationship between homelessness and criminalization; and which have supported service providers to implement evidence-informed housing programs for their residents. However, there are unique challenges for people exiting correctional institutions that reduce their access to safe, supported housing and increase their risk of homelessness. For example, legal discrimination by landlords against people with a criminal record virtually eliminates access to the private rental market. Additionally, opportunities to access funding to study the intersection of homelessness and criminal justice are scarce, as is funding to establish community-based housing for this population.
Too often, people in these circumstances enter the criminal justice system as a result of gaps within our social systems; and, become further stigmatized, excluded, and ‘relabeled’ on account of a criminal record which deems them ‘undeserving’ of support. As the Government of Canada and its partners move ahead on the National Housing Strategy, a truly bold move would ensure that when we talk about “all Canadians” deserving a home, that they mean it and include Canadians who have been incarcerated.