Homelessness and the criminal justice non-profit/voluntary sector

“Formerly incarcerated people who experience homelessness do not earn sympathy from most Canadians.”

- Anita Desai (Executive Director, St. Leonard’s Society of Canada)


Desai reminds us of a problematic reality, especially given the ongoing cycle between incarceration and homelessness experienced around the world. In Australia, for example, almost 25% of prisoners in New South Wales experience housing instability prior to incarceration and “thousands of people [are] released from prison into homelessness in the community each year.” We see similar occurrences in the United States and in England, where the ‘revolving door’ between incarceration and homelessness is propelled by a lack of community-based supports for mental health and addiction, a scarcity of affordable housing, and poverty.


Criminal justice non-profit/voluntary sector practitioners and organizations have an important role to play in ending the homelessness crisis in Canada – as well as in other countries – alongside housing advocates from other sectors and policymakers. The day-to-day work of frontline practitioners contributes not only to the welfare of individuals with criminal records, but also to the safety and well-being of communities, by providing holistic supports that can disrupt the cycle between homelessness and incarceration. Practitioner knowledge of the barriers and obstacles faced by people with lived experience of homelessness and incarceration, combined with their understanding of the complex network of social supports that service users must navigate every single day, should be considered by policymakers tasked with developing new housing policies and programs.  


In Canada, approximately 35,000 people are homeless on any given night, and at least 235,000 Canadians experience housing insecurity over the course of a year. Ending this homelessness crisis is a priority for cities across the country, including in Ottawa where the community is half-way through its 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. While some cities have made progress in this area by decreasing reliance on emergency shelters through a Housing First approach, other cities – like Ottawa – are still struggling to find shelter space for individuals and families experiencing poverty and displacement.


Promising news came in 2018 when the federal government announced a new National Housing Strategy: a 10-year, $40-billion plan that promotes a human rights-based approach to ‘address the needs of people across the whole spectrum of Canadian society’. The use of such language was welcomed by everyone working in the housing sector, but especially by individuals and organizations who have a mandate to work with and support people with criminal records in the community.  


In a recent blog post written for The Homeless Hub, Anita Desai points to the “unique challenges” encountered by people with criminal records, such as “legal discrimination by landlords”, which effectively eliminates them from many safe and desirable rental housing options. In Ottawa, this discrimination is manifested through the Crime Free Multi-Housing program that is facilitated through the Ottawa Police Service and encourages landlords to conduct criminal background checks as part of their rental application process. Apart from this program, people with criminal records are often excluded from rental housing options due to a lack of prior landlord references or because they simply cannot afford market rent prices. These obstacles, amongst others, often push people back into homelessness and leave them (once again) at the mercy of bad public policy that criminalizes poverty – such as Ontario’s Safe Streets Act.  

Across Canada, non-profit organizations such as the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society deliver services to assist criminalized individuals in finding and securing a home. Housing practitioners (e.g. reintegration workers, housing-based case managers, residential support workers) provide many supports, including:


·         visit people while they are still incarcerated to discuss their housing needs and preferences;

·         meet with landlords and property managers to advocate on behalf of service users;

·         secure housing subsidies and other forms of social assistance;

·         provide positive references required by rental housing application forms;

·         find furniture/home basics and help with moving expenses; and

·         set up a series of follow-up meetings to promote stability and prevent eviction/loss of housing.


Each of these services are necessary for many individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness, but the presence of a criminal record – and the trauma that often comes with experiences of criminalization and punishment – requires additional knowledge and resources that are specific to those working in the criminal justice voluntary sector. Additionally, the persistent advocacy work performed by those working in the sector at the municipal, provincial, and federal level is invaluable and ensures that those responsible for drafting policies and implementing programs are aware of the specific challenges faced by people with criminal records. For example, research reports from organizations like the John Howard Society of Ontario highlight gaps in services and make evidence-based recommendations to better meet the needs of individuals and communities.


The ongoing exclusion and discrimination faced by people with criminal records in the community calls for additional advocacy, targeting individual and structural changes, and it is this advocacy work – including collective efforts to push for broader structural reforms – that I highlight in my doctoral research on the (resistance to) collateral consequences of punishment and criminalization in Canada.


As Canada and other countries (such as England, Scotland, and Wales) continue to work towards ending homelessness through the adoption of rights-based housing policies, the criminal justice voluntary sector must remain active and vocal to ensure that people with criminal records are not left behind.



Samantha McAleese is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and is currently writing her SSHRC-funded dissertation: ‘Do you have a criminal record?’: Navigating and resisting the collateral consequences of punishment in Canada. She has been a funded member of CRIMVOL since its first conference in June 2017 and has volunteered for, worked in, and advocated alongside the criminal justice non-profit/voluntary sector in Ottawa since 2009


You can follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_McAleese for updates on her research and advocacy work.

Philippa Tomczak