Category Archives: homelessness

Helping women start over….

 I was happy to see  the National H.I.R.E. Network  devoted its 5th Annual Policy  Conference last week  to one of the most overlooked groups of ex-offenders.

You guessed it  – women.

The advocacy organization, which is dedicated to helping individuals with criminal records,  focused some much needed attention on the fact that , as I’ve noted, women face unique challenges in starting over after incarceration.  At the same time, most reentry programs and efforts are devoted to the needs of the men.   There’s a lack of understanding about the female experience behind bars, as well as what their needs are after release.   There’s also a stigma.  

I also think H.I.R.E. came up with some interesting  recommendations for change:

Within facilities

  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release.
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  • Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.


  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.

Readers, how about you?    Are there any services you’ve seen that have helped women?  Anything you would add?

By the way, you can more about the conference here.


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Filed under criminal records, education ex-offenders, homelessness, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, starting over, women ex-offenders

A problem too big to ignore: U.S as a land of “selective” opportunity

Class issues have been very much on my mind this week.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I carry on a bit here  about the yawning gap in the U.S between the haves and the  have-nots. 

I just finished watching the  HBO documentary, “Homeless,” about the families who live in the motels around Disneyland in Anaheim, California because they can’t afford a real home.  As a newspaper reporter  covering Disneyland in the early 1990s, I was well acquainted with  these seedy motels just footsteps from “The Happiest Place on Earth.”  But I had no idea the extent to which they’ve become the last resort for so many really young  kids and their parents.  The documentary, which was produced by Alexandra Pelosi, was heart-wrenching as it illuminated the lives of these children crammed in single rooms with their families and  playing in parking lots and alleyways rife with drug addiction and gang violence.  The kids even go to a special school, Hope School, that runs all year so that they can get regular meals and be kept off the streets.  Watching it, I kept thinking of  how I’d been less shocked to see poor kids in third world countries, than in a rich country like the U.S., where everyone is supposed to have a chance.

And yes, Ms. Pelosi is the daughter of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  But regardless of your politics, this program is eye-opening.   What was most jarring to me was that most of these people were working full-time if not overtime ( though often minimum wage jobs at places like Target, Wal-Mart and even nearby Disney), yet they still couldn’t afford to rent a house in Orange County.

The majority of people Pelosi interviewed were also white, which made me think of a great piece I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that argued how affirmative action had failed America because it’s not helping the folks who really need it.  It was written by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who has also gone out on a limb backing prison reform.  For my money, there are few legislators who have a better fix on the problems ailing the U.S. – or more courage in confronting them – than Webb.   He asserts that as affirmative action has been expanded to include all people of color and other protected groups, it has shortchanged the African-Americans it was designed to help.  And that’s not all.  As Webb writes:

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.

The fact that Webb’s editorial has more than 1,000 commenters, many in support of what he says, suggests that a lot of us are seeing the disconnect.    In essence it’s not about race or ethnicity — it’s about economic and social disadvantage.  Americans who fall or are falling into the lower class are the ones most in need of assistance. 

This is also highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which I recently picked up when I saw an 11-year-old boy reading it at the pool.  (I’m assuming for the chapter on what it takes to succeed in sports, since he’s typically carrying a football.)   In the book, Gladwell basically skewers the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man, by illustrating many of the extraordinary advantages our up-by-their-bootstraps heros have actually had.   He also cites class in explaining why being a genius doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a success, pointing out that there are certain things well-off parents teach their children about making their way that children from poorer families often  don’t know. 

Any way you look at it, it’s a tough problem.  Readers, what are your thoughts?

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Filed under class issues, homelessness, jobs, UVA Lacrosse, wages

Remembering the battles soldiers fight — away and at home

On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a couple of people I know.  These particular folks not only served their country — in some cases with much distinction — but in a twist that’s become all too familiar, they also served time in prison or jail.

Sadly, the longer America has been at war, the more common this scenario  has become.   So common, in fact, that the prevalence of combat veterans who get  in trouble with the law after they return has been well-documented — In stories like this one from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Or  in the “The Wounded Platoon” , a television documentary airing earlier this month, which opened with a tale of how three army combat buddies had killed a fourth after a night of drinking in Colorado Springs.

As these reports note, it’s difficult to find hard statistics on incarcerated veterans, let alone the whys behind their offenses.  This oft-cited special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at the ex-military population in prisons and jails in 1998 and found a preponderance of Vietnam War vets, higher-levels of education and people who were more likely to be addicted to alcohol than drugs.

But new wars have brought new challenges.  “The Wounded Platoon,” depicts how the need for troops prompted the military to accept recruits with criminal and juvenile records who might have been rejected in the past.  Faced with a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder during IED-laden guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military also began to allow soldiers in combat to take prescription drugs, among them antidepressants and Ambien. Some believe this may account for higher incidences of  post-war drug and alcohol abuse.

Given the difficulties of readjusting to life outside a war zone — and the little support available  —  it’s not a big leap to imagine how a combination of substance abuse and psychological disorders could lead a veteran to cross the line. Granted, many in the service had problems before they ever put on a uniform.  As one commenter noted on the story in the Salt Lake City Tribune, some “would have committed a crime regardless.”  Still, the 2000 BOJ report found that veterans were more likely to be serving a sentence for a violent offense than those who had never served.  They were also more likely to be older and first-time offenders.

I’m not saying those who have broken the law should be exempt from punishment because of their military service.  It just seems that perhaps military service needs to be factored in more.  This was brought home to me earlier this year when I met an offender whose profile didn’t make sense to me.  This woman had spent nearly a decade in the service, fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and received commendations and assignments that required a high level of security.   The incident that got her in trouble was alcohol-fueled and happened shortly after her return to the U.S.   Obviously, I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t there, but the idea that the crime warranted time in jail as opposed to some other sort of psychological or substance abuse treatment seemed bizarre.

This is not just an issue in the U.S., by the way.   Veterans in Prison, an organization founded by a group of British ex-soldiers tracks similar problems in the UK.  In 2008, for example, a report found that 1 in 11 people serving time in British jails was a former member of the armed forces.

What can we do?  That’s a good question.  Fortunately, as more soldiers reenter civilian life, there seems to be a growing  awareness of the challenges they face.   This was reflected in a California ruling  last year in a case involving a former Army Ranger accused of  breaking into two pharmacies to fuel his prescription drug addiction. Although he was facing up to 12 years in prison, he was given treatment as opposed to jail upon appeal.

I’m hoping to see more of this.  How about you?


On an administrative note:  Alas, today is the official end of the WordCount Blogathon 2010. Yesterday, I reflected on what a long, often challenging, but rewarding trip it’s been.   Unfortunately, (or fortunately, for those of you who were tired of me nattering on) this means that I’ll no longer be posting daily.  But thanks to some new followers, some great ideas and lots of inspiration, I”m hoping to be able to use the longer lead time between posts to tackle some stories I’ve been meaning to get to — like ban the box and other pressing issues.

So thanks again for sticking with me for a month’s worth of posts and blog-discovery.  And a final shout-out to Michelle Rafter, who made this whole event not just possible, but loads of fun.

I hope you’ll stay tuned…..

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, breaking the law, criminal records, ex-offender psychology, homelessness

No place to go – the homeless epidemic among ex-offenders

A woman in my class was talking recently about how happy she would be to reunite with her two-year-old upon her release.   There was only one problem:  in addition to getting a job and  paying her court costs, restitution and legal fees, she needed to  find a place to live.  In the short-term, she said, matter of factly, they could go to a shelter, no problem. She’d done it before.   But finding something more permanent would be a challenge.

Sadly, she’s far from alone.  A handful of her classmates  also have no permanent residence.  I know this because of the blank stares I get as they shake their heads and tell me they have no address to put on the resumes we’re writing for them.  That’s okay, is my standard response, since the resumes can be put into the  computer system without one at OAR, the re-entry organization where I volunteer.  After their release when they have an address they can add it in.

Too often this never happens.   According to data over at the National Reentry Resource Center:

  • More than 10 percent of those entering prisons and jails are homeless in the months before their incarceration. For those with mental illness, the rates are even higher — about 20 percent. Released prisoners with a history of shelter use were almost five times as likely to have a post-release shelter stay.

It’s a fair  assumption that someone who enters prison without a permanent address often exits it that way. Sometimes family will step in to help out, but that’s more the exception.     Each year close to 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons.  Another 9 million are released from jails.    Ten percent of that would be as many as 970,000 individuals potentially coming out with no place to go.  

 It’s a frightening thought — because everyone knows how difficult it can be to find work when you don’t have an address.  Without work, it’s impossible to pay for a place to live.  Add to that the fact that many landlords won’t rent to ex-offenders and you get a better sense for why reentry can be a revolving door right back into custody for as many as two-thirds of all offenders.    A study by the Vera Institute for Justice, for example, found that people released from prison and jails to parole who went to homeless shelters in New York, were seven times more likely to abscond within the first month than those who had some type of housing, putting their freedom and their futures in jeopardy.

 That’s why I was heartened to see that Council of State Governments Justice Center has released a new publication that addresses the critical issue of finding affordable housing for the newly released ex-offenders.   You can read and download a copy of  Reentry Housing Options: The Policymakers Guide, here.

I’d also be interested in hearing how others  have successfully managed the housing issue.  Two years ago OAR launched the Beacon Program, which provides 18-24 months of housing, plus employment/career training and educational resources  for a handful newly released felons as they begin to rebuild their lives. 

 How about you, what’s worked in your area?  Or if you’re a former offender what’s worked for you?


Filed under class issues, economy, homelessness, hope for ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, starting over, unemployment