Housing For Men Returning From Prison Often Overlooked

William Rodgers spent a year-and-a-half after prison working toward moving into his own place. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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William Rodgers is moving into his own housing for the first time, a year and a half out of prison. He found this place through a program called Open Door, where he’s lived for a year.

“Honestly I don't know what would have happened, if it wasn't for this place, I could have ended up doing something stupid again, you know what I mean?” says Rodgers.

Open Door is run by the YMCA, and affiliated with the county’s public housing authority. For the men who finish the program, there’s access to subsidized housing. But this kind of help is a rarity in Ohio: there are only 45 spaces available at Open Door and it’s the only place like it in Northeast Ohio. And the waitlist for housing subsidies in Cleveland is thousands of names long. About 3000 people returned from prison to Cuyahoga County in 2014. For those that want the help, there’s a range of mental health, employment and substance abuse services available. But when it comes to finding stable housing, the path ahead can be daunting.

Rodgers says he tried to find housing without subsidies shortly after his 10-year sentence for manufacturing drugs ended. He nearly got one at a building downtown until he told management about his felony.

“They said, 'maybe, because the felony conviction was old.' But I never heard from them again. I had the money and the credit to get in so the felony was probably the only thing hindering me," says Rodgers.

Returning from prison didn’t always carry the stigma with it that it does today, says Charles See, the former director of reentry services at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry

“When I started in ’73, ’74, we could go down to prison, we could bring folks home for community events, we would have art shows, and then we would take them back in the afternoon," says See.

He says Cuyahoga County has done more than most places to address the challenges of returning to society. But housing still gets less attention than other services. See’s successor at LMM, Michael Sering, says they’ve started a program that takes houses from the land bank, refurbishes them and offers them to the homeless. Anyone coming through their men’s shelter downtown is eligible, including those returning from prison.

“The upper limit from the Land Bank would be you know thousands. They talk about - could their housing stock end homelessness?” says Sering.

Cuyahoga County has the highest number of people going to and coming back from prison in Ohio each year. And there’s nothing stopping a landlord from rejecting someone just because they have a felony record.

Maria Smith is an attorney at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. She says a Department of Housing and Urban Development announcement last year could start to address that.

“You can use the legal handles of the Fair Housing laws to say to landlords - you can't use just a blanket disqualifier just because someone has a criminal conviction," says Smith, and adds that guidance by HUD makes a huge difference. There’s already a federal case in New York challenging landlords who refuse tenants because of a criminal background.

James Prater is getting closer to finding his own place. For now, he’s staying at the Stella Maris Treatment Center in the Flats, after a drug-related stay in county jail. Prater says he plans to keep living nearby.

“I know if I go back to certain neighborhoods the chance of recovery is lessened somewhat because of the neighborhood- people, places and things," says Prater.

He’s been taking advantage of every service he can find. He’s working with the Cleveland Eastside Ex-Offenders Coalition to navigate services. Prater used to live on Cleveland’s east side. And that’s where most of Cleveland’s public housing and landlords who accept housing vouchers are. That creates a challenge for him.

“If you want to move to a different part, when all the help is placing you right back where you were, then that's the reason for recidivism," says Prater.

Prater has about another 6 weeks in sober living housing, then he’ll likely be looking for his own housing.

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