By Boston Woodard
On Nov. 5, 2018, I was released from prison after serving 38 continuous years behind bars. Upon my return to freedom, a parole agent drove me to an area of San Jose that was dotted with cheap hotels. He dropped me off on The Alameda, a boulevard in San Jose, with everything I owned stuffed in a backpack and a small duffle bag. I was told I could “probably find a place to stay” there.
That was it. There was no system in place to ease me back into society, as prison officials led me to believe there would be.
California law requires people released from prison must return to the county where their crimes were committed, where they live under supervised parole for a designated period of time. Resources such as housing and employment are supposed to be available as part of the transition back into society there.
Prior to paroling, a state prison “counselor” informed me that there would be services that would assist me once I reported to the parole office. “Housing,” “possible employment” opportunities, “drug and alcohol programs (if needed), “food vouchers and clothing” would be issued.
I received some help I sought out on my own weeks after my release. I had nowhere to live in San Jose, no funds, no friends or relatives in Santa Clara County. I was effectively homeless. I was not ready to sleep on the streets.
Because I’m 65 with some medical issues, living on the street would have posed some serious challenges. Without a place to live, it’s nearly impossible to find the resources to survive. There was nowhere to keep my belongings safe. I didn’t have access to transportation or the financial means necessary for a hotel room. These are struggles that all homeless people face, but as a senior who had spent the last 38 years housed in prison, I felt particularly unequipped to figure out how to navigate this harsh landscape.
As I faced these difficulties, I called a friend who lives in San Francisco and asked for help. Luckily for me, he drove to San Jose to pick me up. As a parolee, I was required to remain in the county of my commitment. I was not allowed to travel the 45 or so miles to San Francisco to stay with my friend. That friend and several others pooled enough funds to keep me off the street for several weeks in hotels and some inexpensive bed and breakfasts.
Six weeks after my release, I finally received help from the Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) in San Jose. After many inquiries and searching their resources, the OSH was able to find a bed for me in a sober living environment (SLE) in south San Jose.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), ex-prisoners yield a high rate of homelessness, and many parolees become recidivists—that is, they end up back in prison. Using a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, the PPI found that among formerly incarcerated people, the rate of homelessness was 10 times that of the general public. State-level studies of homeless shelters find that many formerly incarcerated people rely on shelters, both immediately after their release and over the long term.
Edward G. is an example of these statistics. He is also in his 60s and formerly incarcerated, though he is not as fortunate as I was. He is currently homeless in Santa Clara County and has been for several years following his release from prison.
After his release, Edward stayed on and off in homeless shelters for a couple months. On the nights he didn’t spend in shelter, Edward slept in abandoned houses and cars. When it came to receiving support from the government after being released from prison, he told me that all he was issued were some “food vouchers, new shoes and warm clothes” from a Goodwill program. Nothing more.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, California has 134,278 people experiencing homelessness, or 34.2 homeless people for every 10,000. Homelessness is intimately linked with the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Almost 50,000 people a year enter homeless shelters immediately after they are released from prison.
Homelessness can also lead to imprisonment. Research from the PPI suggests that up to 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year before admission to prison.
Part of the struggle for all homeless people is that callousness of local government. This is especially difficult for people returning from jail or prison, who face barriers finding stable housing and employment due to stigma, as well as lack of programs and assistance.
According to Edward G.’s experience, it isn’t easy to access supportive programs in his county, such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, general assistance (food and clothing), and medical and mental health programs. According to him, without transportation, a car, bus fare or other means of transportation, he can’t get to them, especially in inclement weather during the winter months. He worries about his property: a small shopping push-cart with a backpack and a few carrying bags, and the only good pair of shoes he owns.
According to Mike Rhodes, it is these sorts of problems that lead to recidivism among homeless people on probation or parole. To paint this picture, Rhodes—who is the author of Dispatches from the War Zone, which is about homelessness in Fresno—told me about a group of homeless parolees in Fresno who were required to wear ankle bracelets to monitor their whereabouts.
“The ankle bracelets must be charged and the formerly incarcerated individuals would use the electrical outlets near the Water Tower downtown to recharge them. It was one of the few places where they could go, charge up and stay in compliance with the authorities,” he described.
But soon, the City of Fresno cut off all power to the outlets near the Water Tower. “This is an example of the mindless and punitive nature of the system that must be changed,” he said.
In this way, formerly incarcerated people who end up on the street are facing a new type of imprisonment: They live under threat of violating their parole, with limited access to the resources they need to survive.
A new report by the PPI states that individuals who have recently been released from prison experience predominantly high rates of homelessness. “Many of those who have been out for two years or less are twice as likely to be homeless as those whose reentry dates back four years,” according to the report.
To combat this problem, the authors recommend that states and local governments develop a coordinated inter-agency approach—something like a “department of reentry” that helps provide short-term support for formerly incarcerated people. New York is considering this approach.
Until all cities and states work together to address this crisis holistically, the impact on taxpayers, poor communities and public safety will only grow more serious.
Boston Woodard is a freelance journalist who spent 38 years in prison. He has been a contributing writer for the Community Alliance since 2005. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.