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Joseph Lauren, Program Director, interviewed in the Globe and Mail.

Read the article in the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s justice system is a leading cause of surging homelessness in the province, according to a new survey by Canada’s leading prisoners’ rights organization set to be released on Tuesday.

The John Howard Society of Ontario canvassed 175 people with a history of homelessness and justice involvement and found that 41 per cent cited cops and courts as the reason for their loss of housing.

“When people exit the justice system, they don’t often have access to housing and other critical reintegration supports,” said Safiyah Husein, the organization’s director of policy. “Because of that, they end up sleeping on the streets, relying on costly emergency services like the ER and potentially ending up back in the justice system. From a public safety perspective, it serves us best to ensure folks leaving corrections have a place to stay.”

Last year, a Globe analysis of provincial jail data found that the proportion of people being released into homelessness had nearly doubled between 2016 and 2022 – from 8.8 per cent to 17.3 per cent.

The John Howard findings show how an experience with the justice system can spell economic disaster. Social assistance money is generally cut off as soon as someone lands in jail, regardless of whether they’re found guilty.

Of the respondents, 40 per cent said they had a private dwelling before being jailed. Upon release, that percentage dropped by half. The report urges Ontario to continue paying benefits to people who spend short stints in jail, to strengthen release planning and to improve the province’s patchwork of community integration services.

“People entering incarceration often lose their employment income, social supports, medications and identification,” the report states.

John Howard researchers also surveyed justice and housing service providers, who told them that their number-one need is affordable housing options. The broader housing affordability crisis in Ontario means landlords often have their choice of well-qualified tenants. Those with criminal records are unlikely to make the cut.

“Rooming houses will not discriminate against you, but if you’re trying to live in a normal condo or apartment you will face discrimination 100 per cent of the time, and openly to your face,” said Joseph Lauren, program director for Restorative Justice Housing Ontario (RJHO), an organization that rents five homes in the Greater Toronto Area that it sublets out to recently released prisoners from the federal and provincial systems.

Mr. Lauren says there’s a need for thousands more beds given the daily applications he gets from people looking for housing after incarceration.

The report recommends that the province invest in an array of housing options for people leaving jail and points to the successful bail bed program in Ottawa that provides both supervision and housing for people on bail. Bail-bed clients have access to services supporting mental health and employment as well.

Earlier this year, the province put out a call for proposals to create 30 more beds for released prisoners in the central region of the province.

Two in five people with history of homelessness and police involvement cite justice system as reason for housing loss