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Successful program offering emergency housing for people released from jail may end because of lack of provincial support

KJIPUKTUK )Halifax) – When will the province step up and support its most vulnerable and marginalized people, those who have fallen through the cracks of society?

I have been working as a Peer Support Worker with JEC (John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry Society, Coverdale Courtwork Society), a group providing emergency housing in two hotels for people who have exited jail during the Covid-19 crisis. We also offer support in gradually finding other accommodations. 

Staff, comprised of members of each organization, has been offering these supports and services thanks to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, which was receiving money from the federal Reaching Home Program.  

However, the program by Employment and Social Development is wrapping up its support, and without some other source of funding, the assistance to our clients will end June 30th.  

While support has been provided on a federal level, the province has yet to step up and take responsibility for the most vulnerable and marginalized people within its justice system. 

The program has successfully assisted 33 people, without any recidivism to date. Housing has been found for 27 people, who therefore can continue to meet the conditions of their release. However, the agencies have yet to find housing for the remaining clients. The provincial Justice Department has so far not  stepped up to assist with the cost of housing these clients, people who were released from jail because of compromised immune systems or the simple fact that they had no fixed address to be released to.  

Now because of the lack of funding, these clients face returning to the very jail they were released from for no other reason than that they are being left homeless.  

When looking at it from a cost perspective, the provincial Justice Department would be spending twice the money to house these people in jail then it would to help fund a program that not only has proven to be a successful model in reintegrating these clients, but also provides a solution to the overpopulation in an already exhausted judicial system.  

Although this is an area in which the province is lacking in initiative, it is only part of the problem. Through working with JEC as well as within the federal and provincial judicial system I have found that mental health services are another area in which the province is failing its people. 

Mental health is increasingly becoming a police issue instead of a healthcare service. It is becoming evident through the media, and from our experiences, that police are being dispatched to provide mental health crisis intervention, an area that is not within their scope of expertise and for which they are not equipped.  

Wellness checks that escalate to the point that people are losing their lives at the hands of those sent to intervene is a prime example of how ill equipped a department designed to uphold law and order is in handling situations outside of their intended role. 

I have seen the lack of response to crisis situations in the hospitals as well. I have taken clients to the emergency room that were suffering from severe mental distress only to have them discharged hours later in the same state they arrived in.  

It is almost impossible to navigate through this dysfunctional and broken system to support the ongoing needs of clients when we are being told that they cannot be helped because they do not have an official diagnosis. How can anybody be properly diagnosed when they cannot even be admitted for assessment to obtain such a diagnosis in the first place?  

Now more than ever, the departments of Justice, Health, and CommunityServices, together with non-profit organizations need to combine their efforts to offer the support and services that we are all intended to provide. When one support network is unable to facilitate the needs of the individual, why does it have to end there? There should be enough resources to support anyone in need of services without interruption, whether it be housing, community support, mental health needs, financial assistance, etc.  

JEC developed a program that addressed the immediate needs of vulnerable people during the Covid-19 crisis that proved to be successful in the reintegration of our clients while lowering both recidivism and cost. 

With ongoing support and funding from the province, we can continue to provide a unique and dynamic range of services to people who face criminalization and homelessness. With combined efforts from the relevant provincial departments this program will be both viable and sustainable. 

We have already demonstrated the need for this program during a specific crisis, but the sad reality is that the crisis has always been there, it just took a pandemic to open people’s eyes and minds.  

Fixing the systemic issues that we work to change and improve on every day will take all kinds of efforts, but this program is definitely a part of the bigger picture, and the province should support it.

 Sara Tessier is a peer support worker for JEC, the joint housing initiative between the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Mainland Society and the Coverdale Courtwork Society.

See also: Why some Canadian prisoners should be released during the coronavirus pandemic

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