[Editor’s note: Affordable housing used to be an accepted right in Canada. For many it's increasingly out of reach -- a silent national crisis. In this election-year series, Tyee Solutions Society looks at what's failed, and how it can be fixed.]
David Jolivet's prison experience is unusual. He's the rare Canadian to serve all 30 years of a sentence behind bars.
Most federal inmates -- anyone doing two years or longer -- are released before their sentence ends.
Parolees may be released as early as six months before finishing one-third of their sentence, but serve the rest of their time on the outside under the watchful eye of a parole officer. But parole rates have plummeted, from over 50 per 100,000 imprisoned adults in 1993/4, to just 20 in 2010/11, according to Statistics Canada.
Instead, more than half the men leaving federal prisons last year were on what's called "statutory release": near-automatic liberty after two-thirds of a sentence has been served, without the supervision or support of parole.
Jolivet first went to prison in British Columbia in 1976 for counterfeiting U.S. currency. He escaped in 1984, and fled to the United States. Within the year he was incarcerated again, this time for robbery and kidnapping. Transferred to Canada at his request in 2003, his indefinite "30 years-to-life" sentence was fixed at the minimum.
He served every day of it. As a transferred prisoner, "I don't have the benefit of the parole and statutory release date that everybody else does," said Jolivet, 56. "I had to serve all my time."
But there was nothing unusual in Jolivet's March release. The ride he had arranged didn't come, leaving him with nowhere to go. Handed a list of homeless shelters, Jolivet caught a ride with two parole officers who dropped him off in downtown Vancouver.
"I was lost," said Jolivet, who hadn't been in the city for 35 years. He ended up at the Astoria Hotel, a dive straddling Vancouver's drug-ridden Downtown Eastside and low-income Strathcona neighbourhoods. It was the only hotel he could find that took cash.
For almost two months he lived in a room he remembers as smaller than his prison cell above the hotel's pub. "They profile heavy metal bands there every night. And it's just banging until two in the morning," he told Tyee Solutions Society in April.
While organizations like the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies operate halfway houses funded by Correctional Service Canada (CSC), those beds are only available to people on parole.
"[Correctional Service Canada] does not have jurisdiction over ex-offenders once they have completed their federal sentence, and therefore does not develop an accommodation plan for them at this stage," CSC media relations advisor Jon Schofield wrote in an email.
Schofield added that CSC does provide "links" to services like John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, which operate shelters, transitional housing and rental support programs.
But the available housing isn't nearly enough to accommodate the hundreds of prisoners released annually. Unless an ex-con has family or friends to meet them, their first free steps are back onto the streets.
From cell to street
A 2006 University of Toronto study found that more than 800 people arrive at the city's homeless shelters directly from prison every year -- more than two a day, accounting for one to two per cent of overall admissions. Most were 25 to 44-year-old men.
But some shelter workers told researchers that was an undercount, claiming that more than 800 newly released inmates arrived at their shelter alone every year.
On average, more than half of all those who left prison in the 2013/2014 government year were released unsupervised -- roughly 35 inmates every week -- according to Canada's auditor general this year.
That doesn't include the steady stream of releases from provincial institutions. These hold some 24,000 adults at any given time, over half in remand centres awaiting trial or sentencing, or serving short community sentences, the rest serving less than two years.
"If you went into jail homeless, or worse, while you're in jail you lose your housing and all your belongings get taken -- stolen, thrown on the curb -- then you leave with nothing," said Susan Keeping, regional manager at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, which supports women and girls involved in the justice system.
Most women end up in jail for less than 30 days for crimes of poverty, like prostitution, Keeping adds. They're more likely to borrow a couch or trade sex for room and board than sleep in a shelter.
Those circumstances trap many homeless people in a loop between the justice system and the street. The University of Toronto study found that 42 per cent of homeless people who had previously been arrested -- many for crimes related to lack of shelter, like panhandling and sleeping in public places -- returned to jail in 2004/05.
A 2010 John Howard Society of Toronto report found 85 per cent of those who were homeless when they went to jail believed they would be homeless again when they got out.
One fifth of federal inmates and almost a third of provincial/territorial inmates were indigenous, despite encompassing less than five per cent of Canada's population. Canadian cities tracking their homeless populations report that anywhere from 11 to 96 per cent identify as indigenous.
Paying it forward
When Eddie Rouse was released on parole for non-capital murder in 1989, he went directly to a CSC-funded halfway house where he stayed for a year and a half. During that time he finished the political science degree from Simon Fraser University he'd started in prison on CSC's dime, funding himself with student loans.
He credits parole support for helping him land on his feet: "I didn't have to deal with work to make a living and I had the accommodation of the halfway house," he said.
Now a case worker at NewStart Bridging, an employment, skills training and personal development program at Vancouver Northeast Employment Centre, Rouse dedicates his spare time to helping ex-convicts like Jolivet without CSC or family support integrate back into society.
"I can pick up the phone and call him any time," Jolivet said of Rouse, who helped Jolivet apply for his first credit card.
Leaving prison unsupported, Rouse says, "is like going from a small-town like Trail, [B.C.], where everybody knows everybody, and coming [to the city] and knowing no one, not having a job, and having very limited funds."
Rouse has tried to help ex-cons on a larger scale. In 1990 he helped set up a volunteer-run organization called New Page for ex-convicts who couldn't get housing help from traditional services like Elizabeth Fry or John Howard.
New Page was to "help them access housing, help advise them on getting jobs, basically familiarizing them with the street," said Rouse.
With some funding from CSC, Rouse was allowed to counsel federal inmates on what to expect on the outside. But with few resources, volunteers including Rouse burnt out. After four years he put the program on indefinite hiatus.
But with fewer released prisoners receiving the kind of support he did on parole, Rouse predicts, "recidivism is going to climb, because the people who don't have any supports outside [prison] are going to go back to what's familiar to them."
The recidivism treadmill
Canada's auditor general, Michael Ferguson, agrees (see sidebar). His 2015 audit of CSC's release programs for men found that longer-supervised parole periods reintegrating ex-convicts into society worked more successfully than keeping them in prison -- and cost a third less.
For the declining number of people who do receive parole or conditional release, the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies talk to prison staff and inmates before they're released to arrange halfway-house beds or other transitional housing.
"We do try to take a real client-first approach when we talk to people about what kind of housing is going to make them most successful," said Julia Payson, head of the John Howard Society of British Columbia.
"If we think they just need to rent one of our housing units, and that's going to be enough for them to have some stability for a while -- to get their job, to get their meds, to get everything worked out -- then that's what we're going to do," she said. For others it could mean co-signing a lease with an ex-convict, so landlords have assurances rent will always be paid.
But Canada-wide there aren't enough places for all the people needing a place to stay while they rejoin society. Stats are few, but when the John Howard Society of Ottawa offered 34 housing beds to ex-prisoners who had been living in shelters for more than six months, 84 people qualified and it was estimated that at least another 200 could have.
And not every ex-inmate is considered vulnerable enough for assistance. "Because [aid societies] have a screening process," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, "they end up turning people away." Candidates generally must have spent at least six months in a shelter over two years, struggled with trauma, addictions and/or brain injuries, and spent time in jail.
Thanks to Eddie Rouse, Jolivet now rents a bedroom in an East Vancouver house. Certified as a paralegal before going to jail, Jolivet also has a contract job with an Abbotsford law firm.
"You have good days and bad days," he said. "But I'm [living] with a smile on my face."
A steady income and opportunity to build up a rental history should help Jolivet stay on the straight and narrow. But he's lucky. Most ex-cons depend on family, friends and over-burdened community services to soften their landing back into society. And when their landing is hard too many face prison again -- at taxpayers' expense.
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