State legislators listen to former inmates' housing challenges

New London — If it weren’t for a sober house in New London, Inez Richards said she might not have been able to integrate back into society after spending the majority of her adult life in prison.

Like so many have before her, she could have ended up homeless or incarcerated yet again.

“I came out of prison and into New London with just the clothes on my back and my ID in a plastic bag,” she said. “And in that year, it was hard for me to find a job to move into a place because of my criminal history.”

“Who I am on paper is not who I am,” she continued. “But all they see, though, is what’s on paper.”

Richards was just one of several former inmates who candidly explained the difficulties of re-entering society and, more specifically, finding housing after incarceration, during a forum on the issue Wednesday night. It was held at Sound Community Services, with dozens in attendance.

The purpose of the forum, which was hosted by state Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, was to hear real stories from those who are struggling after being released from prison. It is one of several such events being held around the state in what is known as the Housing Re-Entry Listening Tour. The information from the forums will be used to form housing policy recommendations for the General Assembly later this year.

“It is easy to say that when people come out of jail, we just have to fix the system. That is easy to say but very hard to accomplish,” Soto said. “So we are tonight trying to focus on the specific things and barriers for people when they come out of prison. And housing is one of those big challenges.”

The event was organized in collaboration with the Commission on Equity and Opportunity and state Rep. Brandon McGee Jr. The commission oversees the Legislative Housing Re-Entry Working Group, which was created by a special act of the legislature in June to study the issue.

Among the many stories relayed Wednesday night, more than a dozen former inmates spoke of their troubles finding and securing a home after leaving prison. Some spoke of their experiences living on the streets, while others recounted the temptations of returning to drug dealing just to survive.

Many lamented the perpetual cycle of being unable to find a job because they didn’t have a home to take care of themselves in and, on the flip side, unable to find a home because they didn’t have a job.

According to state Rep. McGee, who also spoke at the forum, approximately 2,000 people leave prison every month in Connecticut, and those formerly incarcerated are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population, he said.

One former inmate, who identified himself only as Michael, said he served 23 years and was released just over a month ago. He explained that he grew up in a “broken home” in inner-city New Haven and was addicted to drugs at a young age.

“I can tell you that next to employment difficulties, one of the greatest complications I’ve encountered since coming out is housing,” he said. “What I’m learning very quickly is that it is an unforgiving society.”

“I can’t get into the housing from the community where I left because I have the stigma of criminality. The stigma of incarceration,” he continued. “I’m driven, I’m motivated and I want to succeed. I’m not asking anyone for a handout, I’m just asking for a hand.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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