The number of homeless Canadians taking up residence in the country’s prisons and jails has tripled over the last decade, according to a report by the John Howard Society of Canada.
Overall, homeless Canadians made up 16.3% of inmates at Canadian correction facilities in 2021 compared to the 6.3% rate measured between 2008 and 2009, the report said. At the same time, the total number of incarcerations declined by an even larger amount, which simultaneously increased the proportion of homeless Canadians in the justice system.
It was released as wages continue to fail to keep pace with growing housing costs in Canada, thereby increasing the risk that people at the low end of the income spectrum would experience homelessness.
“People can transition through this cycle of incarceration, homelessness, reoffence, and reincarceration many times,” the report concludes. “Without some support or intervention, some people will never break free.”
According to the report, the people most at risk of experiencing homelessness because of incarceration are housing-burdened individuals. These individuals pay upwards of 30 percent of their income on housing costs like rent or mortgage payments.
While housing-burdened individuals can often afford shelter in the short term, their precarious financial situation can be greatly disrupted by even the slightest change in income. Some common disruptions include sickness and injury and more significant events like a medical emergency or a loss of employment.
“Even a week or two of incarceration can lead to missed shifts and lost wages, and as a result, missed rent payments that can jeopardize housing,” the report said. “A person experiencing longer periods of custody will be more likely to experience a loss of housing and employment.”
Those incarcerated often find themselves with fewer job opportunities and less stable housing arrangements once released. The Correctional Service of Canada already requires jails to provide discharge planning services for inmates before their release. This service consists of arranging transportation, clothing, documentation, and other resources necessary for the inmate to re-enter their community.
However, this release planning is only available to individuals who have been sentenced. People who may be held for three months or less or who are released on short notice, like after a court hearing, often do not receive the same attention, according to the report.
The report also argues that the lack of services for most people leaving custody is one reason recidivism rates in providences like Ontario remain high. More than 37 percent of people leaving custody in Ontario commit another crime within two years, the report adds.
“The economic hardship caused by incarceration does not promote public safety,” the 58-page document reads. “It is a negative consequence of justice system involvement that serves to punish and harm people beyond any legally imposed sentence.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s housing market continues to be red-hot, making it harder for low-income earners to find affordable housing options.
According to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA), April’s national Home Price Index was up 23.8 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, rising interest rates have caused national home sales to drop by 12.6 percent between March and April.
“Following a record-breaking couple of years, housing markets in many parts of Canada have cooled off pretty sharply over the last two months, in line with a jump in interest rates and buyer fatigue,” said Jill Oudil, Chairwoman of CREA. “For buyers, this slowdown could mean more time to consider options in the market.”
But the John Howard Society report indicates that Canada’s hot housing market is a barrier for many formerly incarcerated people to find stable housing and employment. Further compounding this issue is that local wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.
For instance, the report says rents in Ontario have increased by 2.3 percent per year over the last decade, according to the providence’s ministry of housing. But local wages have only increased by 0.4 percent per year over the same time.
The report adds that affordable housing options available to people with criminal histories are often of low quality and are located outside of city centers, where many service providers are located. Some housing types include community housing, supportive housing, or purpose-built affordable homes, which include income-restricted units.
“The difficulties associated with justice involvement and homelessness thus interact to create a vicious cycle,” the report said. “A person who is experiencing homelessness is much more likely to come into contact with law enforcement and is much more likely to face incarceration. Incarceration can and does lead to poorer economic and housing outcomes, and subsequent homelessness. Once a person enters the legal system, homelessness becomes more difficult to avoid.”
How You Can Help
The pandemic upended the lives of millions across the globe and continues to threaten the housing security of many more even today. It also showed that providing additional support and protections for renters is a clear-cut way to reduce future increases in homelessness.
That’s why we need you to contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.