In November 2016, a Restorative Justice conference took place at Trinity St. Paul’s in Toronto. Jim Harbell, now Chair of RJHO, recalls that, “people with lived experience of coming out of prison told powerful, candid stories about the value and importance of a roof over their head and an address to unlock other opportunities such as jobs and government assistance. I had never heard stories like they told of their dealings with landlords [who are legally permitted to deny accommodation to former prisoners]. They also spoke about a real longing for a community and a place to belong, to integrate back into life.”
People with lived experience of coming out of prison … spoke about a real longing for a community and a place to belong, to integrate back into life.
Jim said that, after the conference, he started an email exchange with Ed Vandenberg of the Mennonite Circles of Support and Accountability and Harry Nigh, former community chaplain for Correctional Service of Canada and co-founder of Circles of Support and Accountability. They discussed what agencies were helping people as they came out of prison. “It was clear that there was a gap,” Jim recalls.
After a lot of discussion with Harry and Ed, Jim says, “we decided to bring together people and brainstorm the idea.”
In June 2017, they gathered a group of people at the Centre for Social Innovation in downtown Toronto to share information and ideas. The group was diverse but they were all loosely connected to issues of former inmates and housing for people on the social and economic margins of society. They discussed a range of issues and quickly identified an unmet problem of people being released from prison, typically after a sentence of more than 10 years, with no place to live.
Harbell remembers coming away thinking, “this is marvelous… the level of experience, enthusiasm and energy… A sense of calling that there is work to be done!” Eileen Henderson, a past Restorative Justice Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, adds that, “It was one of the more hopeful meetings I’d been to in a long time. People were looking for solutions.” It was also particularly helpful, she says, that Dave Creamer, a Jesuit priest who had created Quixote House for former inmates in Winnipeg, had a model they could look to for inspiration.
Between that June meeting and late 2018, Jim started forming a board of people with expertise in finance, law enforcement, low-income housing, addictions, and public relations, as well as people who worked with former inmates. The group received its charitable registration status effective January 1, 2019, as Restorative Justice Housing Ontario (RJHO).
Restorative Justice Housing Ontario’s (RJHO) vision was that it would help people coming out of prison establish constructive lives in the community. By providing stable accommodation, support, and a framework for living together, RJHO could promote successful community reintegration for people who had been in prison
Translating this vision into reality required a suitable place to live, staff, money, policies, basic necessities and furniture, and, of course, time.
In late 2019, RJHO took a big step forward when it hired Joseph Lauren as program director. Joseph is a lawyer by training and also an ex-prisoner whose efforts at redirecting and reforming his life have included public speaking engagements across Canada and the creation of a documentary focused on the prevention of crime through an examination of its (often unintended) victims.
RJHO took a big step forward when it hired Joseph Lauren as program director
By January 2020, Joseph had located a four-bedroom house in the GTA.
Recalling his search for housing, Joseph says, “One of my goals, perhaps equal to finding suitable housing, was to change perceptions in society about the risks in renting to ex-prisoners. For that reason, I was always completely honest in my search efforts, knowing that while it would make things harder for me, it would eventually deliver a landlord who would see the charity as partners in a larger goal and not just tenants that pay their rent on time.”
On February 20, 2020, before it was even fully furnished, the first two residents moved in. By early May the house had four residents and Joseph started looking for another place.
One of the typical challenges people face when coming out of prison is money. Many are on some form of social assistance that only provides minimal financial support for housing. To address this issue, RJHO uses a rent-geared-to-income formula to ensure each resident has enough for other needs as well as some potential savings, since ideally they would move out after four years.
RJHO uses a rent-geared-to-income formula to ensure each resident has enough for other needs
Juliane Martin, a chaplain with the Salvation Army at Bunton Lodge/W.P. Archibald Centre, sees many people who have come out of prison recently and says, “Three things determine successful re-integration, first, some form of community support from family or friends; second, employment, and; third, housing.”
Juliane adds that, “Finding accommodation is hard. Often people coming out of prison don’t have funds and where they’re living has to be approved because of parole conditions. A lot of landlords won’t take people with a criminal record. Sometimes guys take what they can get but it isn’t that great, for their safety or their mental health.”
The first resident of the home moved in mid-February of 2020 and by the beginning of May the house was full.
Looking back on what the RJHO community has accomplished, Eileen says, “It’s funny. The hopes for that day in June 2017 were more… we had big dreams. But it’s downright miraculous. Many other discussions and projects had gone nowhere.”
The hopes for that day in June 2017 were more… we had big dreams. But it’s downright miraculous
Jim echoes this, with a twist, “Part of me wanted to do more because the need was so great, but we’ve build a good foundation, we’re moving forward carefully, and learning from a process that none of us had done before.”
The plan, once the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, is for RJHO to rent another house and open it in the summer of 2020. The reality will continue and grow.