Close to one in five inmates leaving Ontario jails are released into homelessness, a problem that has only increased over the past five years as communities across the province grapple with the escalating crises of housing affordability, mental health and addiction.
Anti-poverty advocates and experts say these data reflect a failure by the justice system to house some of the most vulnerable people in society. Instead, inmates are routinely released without even a plan to find a home, exacerbating underlying mental-health issues and leaving them more likely to reoffend.
“It’s a vicious cycle. It’s almost a trap,” said Tim Richter, executive director of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “The loop between homelessness and prison is almost mutually reinforcing.”
Since 2016, the number of people in Ontario jails has decreased, and subsequently discharges from detention centres and correctional facilities have also gone down considerably, from 56,083 in 2016/17 to 32,067 in 2021/22, the most recent year for which data are available.
Yet during that same period, the number of inmates released into homelessness – recorded as having “no fixed address” – went up, from 4,928 to 5,541, according to data obtained by The Globe and Mail through a freedom of information request.
Given the overall decrease in inmates, the proportion of those released into homelessness jumped from 8.8 per cent to 17.3 per cent.
The result, experts say, is a correctional system that often further destabilizes people who are already on the margins. Spending even a short time in jail can cause someone to lose their job, have their social assistance frozen and fall behind on rent or mortgage payments.
Among the highest rates are facilities in two of Ontario’s most populated cities: At the Toronto South Detention Centre, the percentage of people discharged with no fixed address in 2021/22 was 23.4 per cent; at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre, the figure was 22.5 per cent.
It’s not just a big-city phenomenon, however.
At the Sudbury Jail, 17.9 per cent of inmates were released into homelessness; at the North Bay Jail, the rate was 20.3 per cent; and at the Niagara Detention Centre, it was 17.2 per cent. At the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont., the rate was 24.4 per cent.
The data do not provide a breakdown of the types of offences the inmates are incarcerated for, or whether they were convicted or awaiting trial. The provincial jail system holds people who are either on remand – meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime – or who have received a sentence of less than two years. Longer sentences are served in federal prisons.
The numbers also don’t specify how many of the discharges involve the same person who may have been arrested and released multiple times in a year.
The correlation between homelessness and recidivism has been well documented in research studies going back decades. The federal government published a report last year that found about 30 per cent of inmates released from both provincial jails and federal prisons face homelessness within two years of their release – which they noted is a risk factor for reoffending.
“A growing number of Ontarians experiencing homelessness are entering our provincial jails, and in turn, a greater proportion of those exiting jails are being released into homelessness. This is reflected in the data we’ve collected, and we hear it directly from our front-line staff who support reintegrating individuals every day,” says Reza Ahmadi, director of research and evaluation at the John Howard Society of Ontario, a non-profit organization that advocates for prisoner’s rights and published a report on this same issue last year.
“Finding stable housing options for justice-involved populations was difficult in the best of economic times, and is now past a crisis point.”
The revolving door of homelessness and incarceration is a pattern that Hamilton-based criminal lawyer Beth Bromberg has seen play out again and again.
Ms. Bromberg has committed her 30-plus-year career to defending vulnerable clients, many of whom struggle with addictions, mental-health issues or other special needs – and are often experiencing poverty as well.
On one recent day at Hamilton’s John Sopinka Courthouse, Ms. Bromberg had two clients appearing before the same judge in plea court. Those clients, like nearly every other person appearing in that courtroom on that day, had been recently homeless – or were bracing for it upon release.
It requires great creativity by lawyers – and judges – to get people who are cycling through the system any morsel of support upon release, Ms. Bromberg said, which can be challenging in an overburdened court system.
“I really go out of my way to make sure they get help, to try to get them on the right path so they don’t get into the same problems again. … For me, that’s what’s so important,” Ms. Bromberg said. “The biggest problem I’m running into is that I can’t get anybody housing. And if I can’t get them housing, I can’t get them stability.”
In the past, she used to be able to contact the Canadian Mental Health Association, or at least the discharge planners at the jails, for their assistance in securing spots at a shelter or residential care facility. “Now, there’s no point in even checking,” she said. “They do their best, but they can’t arrange what doesn’t exist.”
In many cities across Canada, even the homeless shelters that many turn to as a last resort are chronically full.
In its 2022 report, the federal government cited housing as a major pillar in addressing recidivism, calling for “greater efforts” to be made to provide transitional housing solutions for inmates upon release.
Mr. Richter, at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees that housing – particularly supportive housing, where residents would have access to wraparound services on-site – will be key to breaking the cycle.
“People end up bouncing aimlessly through these public systems, none of which are supporting them, even though they’re designed to,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s going to take some co-ordination between these systems, with an aim to move people into housing and providing them the support to resolve some of these challenges.”
In the meantime, community advocates say the justice system also needs to do a better job connecting people with social supports before they get out so that they are not setting them up for failure as soon as the gates are opened.
The potential public safety consequences of these gaps were laid bare in one extreme case in Toronto earlier this year.
After Jordan O’Brien-Tobin was charged in March with the random stabbing murder of 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes on a Toronto subway platform, court documents revealed that he was chronically homeless. He had cycled in and out of the court for years, breaching order after order without any meaningful intervention.
In the days after the tragic killing, the teen victim’s mother pleaded with politicians to address the root causes of violence and called for better social services and housing for those struggling.
In Hamilton, The Hub drop-in centre in the city’s downtown is working to bridge those gaps.
But executive director Jen Bonner said there remains a disconnect between the justice system and work done by groups like hers on the outside. The centre, which Ms. Bonner opened in 2020, is a go-to spot for people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton, many of whom have been involved with police or the justice system.
And yet, Ms. Bonner’s interactions with the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre – known locally as the Barton Street Jail – have been frustratingly limited. She said community partners are too often left out of what she describes as an inadequate discharge planning process.
The provincial government recently provided funding for jails to develop community working tables, which bring a panel of support workers together to collaborate on discharge planning for high-risk inmates. But that funding – and the approaches – are inconsistent from jail to jail.
Ms. Bonner said she sits on the discharge table at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont., which is a roughly 35-minute drive away from The Hub drop-in centre. This allows her staff to help identify and address the needs of an inmate before they are released – for example, whether they have ID or a place to stay, or whether their social assistance payments need to be resumed.
Yet The Hub has no such relationship with the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre, which is less than five minutes away.
“We got a letter that says they don’t need our services, because they have enough discharge planning in place,” Ms. Bonner said. “Well, you don’t. Because guys show up at my door every single day wearing an orange jumpsuit and jail shoes, with a little bag, and they have no idea where to go, where to get [prescriptions] or medications – all of those things. That happens every single day at this building.”
Besides Maplehurst, the province said only four more of Ontario’s two dozen jails have established discharge tables, including the Toronto South Detention Centre, Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre, Thunder Bay Jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.
According to Solicitor-General spokesperson Andrew Morrison, plans are in place for more planning tables at other facilities.
Although Mr. Morrison did not provide a requested comment about the exclusion of some community organizations that can help with housing, he said in an e-mail that corrections staff are designated to help connect inmates with community agencies upon release.
He added that “participation in community reintegration planning is not mandatory” and that the ministry “does not have authority to require any individual released from custody to take residence at any location unless legally set out in a probation order, conditional sentence order or parole certificate.”
Earlier this year, The Hub opened a permanent on-site medical clinic for their clients.
While it’s been a critical addition, Dr. Dale Guenter, a physician at the clinic, said they “are still up against the great tsunami of no housing.”
“So even if we do stuff to try and make sure they have medical attention and prescriptions, and maybe some social services, we still have no housing in Ontario.”
Dr. Guenter also works as a physician in the Barton Jail, giving him a rare perspective from both sides of the fence. He took on the job at the jail in 2019, after more than a decade working with the city’s shelter health network, where many of the patients he engaged with had spent time behind bars.
“Partly it was for my own awareness of how things work on the inside, and being able to be better at receiving people on the outside – but also trying to see if we could make some changes inside the jail that would build a better bridge from jail to community at the time of release,” Dr. Guenter said.
He says when people are released from the jail, they are let out a side door, often cutting through the parking lot of a grocery store on their way to one of the local shelters a few blocks away.
“Suddenly they’re just out there, trying to figure it all out. If they’re lucky, they have a good safety net, either with family or service providers or whoever. But for most, they just suddenly have to figure it out. And it’s so, so easy to get derailed within about four blocks,” he said.
Though even a short stint in jail can unravel someone’s life, Dr. Guenter has also seen the opposite. Particularly for people who were homeless before their arrest, he said in jail they may receive medications they’ve long needed. They get steady meals. They sleep, even if it’s in an overcrowded cell. But then, when they are released into nothing, that progress is quickly undone.
As basic needs become more unaffordable and the lineup for supports becomes longer, front-line workers say they are also hearing increasingly from homeless clients – especially as the cold months approach – that jail is not the worst option in front of them.
Sherri Ramirez, social justice and community relations director at De Mazenod Door Outreach in downtown Hamilton, where hundreds of free meals are handed out each day, has seen that desperation first-hand from clients who have cycled through the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre.
“When you get the guys coming in and out of the Barton Street Jail … they’re in and out, they know ‘oh, winter’s coming – if I smash a window over at so-and-so, I can go in for three months and get out of the cold,’ ” she said.
“Is that a system? Is that how we want people to live?”