Ex-offenders Often Face Discrimination Once Released

Interview by Ron Pleban

             In early November, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless intern Ronald Pleban interviewed Mike Sering about the difficulties many ex-offenders face once they are released.  Sering is the Director of Shelter and Housing for Lutheran Metro Ministries.  Lutheran Metro Ministries is responsible for running 2100 Lakeside, the area’s largest homeless men’s shelter.

 Grapevine:  Do prisons provide programs to help those that might become homeless or who come out of homelessness?

Sering: I am not aware of programs that specifically serve previously homeless people in prison.  Part of in-prison re-entry programming is intended to locate non-shelter housing when people are preparing to leave prison.  Given the prisons system’s limited social service resources, ideal and actual re-entry service resources, ideal and actual re-entry planning are not always the same.

 Gapevine:  Are there any programs available to them once they’ve been released?

Sering:  There are some programs specifically for people with records, like Lutheran Metro Ministry’s Community Re-Entry program and the City’s PROES program.  Other non-profit agencies have certain programs for this population , like Towards Employment, and many others serve people with records as they would serve any other eligible client.

 Grapevine:  What is the percentage of men coming out of prison that become homeless in Cleveland?

Sering:  those statistics aren’t available but at the shelter there are about 25 people per month whose last address was prison.  There are about 6,000 people per year released fro prison into Cuyahoga County.

 Grapevine:  Can homelessness be avoided if a person has been incarcerated a long time and loses their family?

Sering:  In theory, all homelessness can be avoided, but the real question is, are there adequate resources and opportunities for people with multiple and in depth barriers to avoid homelessness?

 Grapevine:  How difficult is it to find a job to pay the rent for people who have been incarcerated?

Sering:  People who are incarcerated have one strike against them in the eyes of most employers.  People with records are also likely to have additional barriers, such as poor or non-recent work history and low-education.  This, coupled with a poor economy for entry-level jobs, results in many people who work full time being unable to pay rent.

   Grapevine:  What services are available to people coming out of incarceration.  Are there halfway houses?

Sering:  Yes, some funded by the state, other ¾ houses may be more like boarding houses.

 Grapevine:  Are there any social workers who help people re-enter?

Sering:  Yes, most at the agencies listed above.  These types of agencies often prefer to hire social workers with a similar background, but people with records are often deterred from pursuing this occupation given licensing and other barriers to the school or the profession.  The State of Ohio also has the “Re-Entry Plan” which includes connecting social workers to people with records.

 Grapevine:  What help do religious organizations provide to those attempting to re-enter?

Sering:  religious organizations provide a core back-bone of service to people with records, often providing mentors, job opportunities, friendships, a place of worship, meals, and other support.  Community Legal Services has ecumenical roots, many churches have small or collaborative programs, and other denomination or congregations have issued statements affirming services to this population.

 Grapevine:  Are there any model programs that you would like to see replicated or expanded?

Sering:  Community Re-Entry is and deserves to be a national model and has been replicated already.  It also operated the “2nd Chance” program in partnership with Cuyahoga County Department of Justice Affairs, which is a national demonstration project to evaluate the effectiveness of expungment, record sealing and services on recidivism.  One of the most recognized models is the Delancey Street program in San Francisco which has a huge offering of services and opportunities, all financed by the work and service of the participants and receivers no government funding.

 Grapevine:  What are the major issues a person confronts after leaving jail or prison:

Sering:  I am not sure of the policies on this of other shelters, but 2100 Lakeside does not discriminate against people with records, but as available may offer special programs to address their specific barriers.  Collateral sanctions are a huge issue facing people with records.  One study identify over 300 ways that people who have done their time are still negatively affected by Ohio legislation.  Things such as barring employment in certain fields, housing limitations, licenses, etc. Individuals may have other issues such as low self-esteem, remorse, lack of resources, shame, few stable friends, large debt from past child support, restitution requirements, and paying fines, etc.

 Grapevine:  What is the recidivism rate and how can we reduce the number returning to jail?

Sering:  Recidivism varies from state to state and according to how it is measured.  Generally acknowledged rates range from 40-60% within 3 years of release.  Reduction can come from giving a true second chance, not being discriminated against, reducing collateral sanctions, and employment opportunities with accounts for approximately 1/3 of recidivism.

 Grapevine:  Is it legal to punish people for crimes committed 10 years earlier in selecting people for jobs or housing?

Sering:  The Ohio legislature has no law prohibiting hiring discrimination against people with records.  Ohio Rep. Shirley Smith is proposing legislation that would put a sunset on the allowable time for discrimination.  New York and others have some prohibitions against such discrimination.  Cleveland city council has introduced legislation that would bar discrimination against people with records when there is no “direct and substantial” link from the position to the offense.  Some employers impose excessive restrictions, while others have thoughtful, progressive policies that benefit the worker and the company.

 Grapevine:  What do you think should be the amount of time that an employer or landlord should look into an applicant’s background?

Sering:  Generally, 5 years seems reasonable, although it might make sense to have a graduate range, with less time for lesser offense, or offenses that do not relate to the position available.

 Grapevine:  With the toughening of Megan’s Law in Ohio, with restricts where sexually based offenders can life or work, what should we do as a society with sexually based offenders after they are released from incarceration? 

Sering:  There needs to be a fair balance between protecting our children, and how we treat and/or restrict people who have sexually oriented offenses.  An overly restrictive policy that blankets all such offenders may not be of the most benefit to society., and no studies have shown these policies to work.  Providing those who will respond positively to the right opportunities for success, with reasonable housing options make sense.  Some experts in this field feel the law should have a moderate baseline, but give judges more discretion based on each case.

 Grapevine:  Is a shelter an appropriate place for sexually based offenders to live? 

Sering:  A shelter is as appropriate for people with sexual offenses as it is for people with other offenses, or no offense – appropriate in that it should be a very temporary solution until the person can secure their own safe affordable housing.  General emergency shelters should not be looked to provide rehabilitation for people with sexual offenses, as that is best suited for professionals with those specific qualifications.

 Grapevine:  Is Megan’s Law an unfounded state mandate that results in many men becoming homeless because they cannot find a place to live?

Sering:  Some homeless men cannot find housing due to Megan’s law even though they work and earn enough for a low-cost apartment.  Some studies have been done to show the red line (all the areas that are restricted), and they show very limiting allowable housing areas in urban and suburban areas.

  Grapevine:  What are the voting rights of a felon?

Sering:  People with records have full voting rights in Ohio, as long as they are not currently incarcerated in a penitentiary.  Being “on paper,” or in jail awaiting trial does not take away this right.  (Editor’s Note:  “On paper” refers to an individual who is currently on parole or probation.)

Have a Happy and Unincarcerated 2006!

 Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine December 2005 Issue 74