Previous research has established that being homeless increases the likelihood of ending up in jail, while imprisonment increases the risk of homelessness and the length of time that homeless people spend in shelters. The number of homeless prisoners in Toronto area jails is increasing. And a small, but growing, number of men are caught in a revolving door between jails and shelters. This report explores the housing situation of adult men serving sentences in Toronto area jails, focusing on those who are homeless. These prisoners‘ housing plans on discharge, as well as their immediate and anticipated service needs in the months after release, are documented. Their residential locations are mapped in relation to selected neighbourhood characteristics.
The survey results are based on interviews with 363 sentenced prisoners who have spent a minimum of five consecutive nights in custody and who are within days of scheduled release from one of four provincial correctional facilities in the Greater Toronto Area.
Among this group, 22.9 percent, or roughly one of every five prisoners, was homeless when incarcerated, that is they were staying in a shelter, living on the street (in places considered unfit for human habitation), in a treatment facility, or staying at the home of a friend, paying no rent. The latter situation is a common form of hidden homelessness; if persons in that situation are excluded, in line with a more conservative definition of homelessness, a total of 19.3 percent were homeless.
The average stay in custody was a little more than two months. Within days of discharge, the prisoners‘ housing plans indicate that their overall projected rate of homelessness would increase by 40 percent. Half of them plan to return to their pre-custody housing situation, even if it meant staying in a shelter, on the street, or using a friend‘s couch. Of those who were homeless before being incarcerated, the majority, 85.5 percent, anticipate being homeless again on discharge. Among prisoners who were housed before being incarcerated, 16.4 percent anticipate being homeless upon discharge.
Thirteen percent of the survey respondents were homeless both before and after being incarcerated.
Overall, 32.2 percent, or almost one of every three prisoners had plans upon discharge to go a shelter, live on the street, or couch-surf at the home of a friend. Another 12 percent of these prisoners are at risk of being homeless since they do not know where they will go. If these two groups are combined, a total of 44.6 percent are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This is a large, identifiable stream of people who should be targeted for assistance to reduce chronic homelessness. Analysts have pointed out repeatedly that relative to other homeless sub-groups, those who are chronically homeless have the greatest need for appropriate housing and services, an investment that would provide the largest social returns (Trypuc and Robinson 2009).
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.
Homeless prisoners requested more types of service to deal with community re-entry than housed prisoners. Yet, almost all the prisoners (95 percent) said they needed various kinds of support.
Overall, the survey respondents were only slightly more likely than the general population to have been living in low-income neighbourhoods that lack adequate services for the needs of residents. Homeless prisoners were most likely to have been living in downtown and City-designated priority neighbourhoods.