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‘This is freedom? I have nothing.’ Fresno County’s cycle of incarceration and homelessness

Fresno Bee | June 29, 2022 | By Cassandra Garibay and Jamila Harris

It took two years for Christopher Washington, the former president of student government at Fresno City College, to find stable affordable housing after six months in jail.

With only a few bus passes and wearing the suit he had on when he was arrested, he walked out of jail with nowhere to go. He had no family in town; his housing voucher had been rescinded and he had yet to meet his newborn daughter.

“(The officer) was like, ‘All right, you have freedom’. And then it hit me like, ‘This is freedom? I have nothing,’” Washington recalled of the day he was released in 2019. He said he considered moving home with his mother who lived in Virginia – but only three weeks after his release, she passed away.

“My incarceration alone … it was a very dark moment in my life. And I was going through this dark moment with only like a few people by my side,” Washington said. “But it was the aftermath that really kind of defined my life.”

Washington said he bounced between friends’ couches, hotels and shelters, constantly anxious about where he would be able to lay his head the next night or if he’d overstayed his welcome. All the while, he was battling with alcoholism.

This cycle lasted two years.

Christopher Washington sits at his desk where he keeps a photo of his mother who recently passed away at his apartment in Fresno on Wednesday, June 9, 2022. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

“Everyone else had already made up their mind on what they thought,” Washington said, despite most of his charges being dropped. “They had already made up their mind on who Christopher was going to be to them.”

Becoming homeless after incarceration is not unique to Washington. A 2018 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that, nationally, formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to become homeless than someone who has never been incarcerated. The Prison Policy Initiative analysis used data from the 2008 National Former Prison Survey dataset, the most recent dataset of its kind.

“How are you supposed to thrive if you don’t have a place to live?” said Claudia Gonzalez, the Central Valley Root and Rebound policy advocate and economic security coach. “If you want formerly incarcerated people to succeed, then housing has to be a priority.”

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center 2021 report, along with conversations with formerly incarcerated individuals, community based organizations and the Fresno County Probation Department, there are many reasons formerly incarcerated persons may be unable to access housing. Some hurdles are: systemic barriers; poor credit; stigma from landlords; a loss of income or inability to access high-paying jobs; a previous eviction; a lack of affordable housing options; inability to return to family or programs with specific requirements.

Locally, roughly 8% of people on probation in Fresno County – 615 of 7,256 – reported experiencing street homelessness as of May 18, according to data from the Fresno County Probation Department. An additional 3% of Fresno County persons with an arrest warrant – 347 out of about 9,324 – are also unhoused.

The data on how many formerly incarcerated individuals who are unhoused or housing insecure in Fresno County is incomplete.

Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Kirk Haynes said while some individuals on probation may falsely report they are homeless to make monitoring by a probation officer more difficult, he believes the May statistics are on par with recent trends.

The Fresno County Probation Department data does not include people on probation who live in shelters or temporary housing, nor does it include information on those who are on parole or who were never issued a monitoring sentence after their release, according to Haynes.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which monitors those on parole, did not share how many parolees were homeless in Fresno County – they did state that as of May, there are approximately 2,120 people on parole in Fresno County.

THE CYCLE OF HOMELESSNESS AND INCARCERATION

Claudia Gonzalez, with Central Valley Root and Rebound, said stable housing is a key component to reentry for formerly incarcerated folks. Root and Rebound is a legal reentry services organization which provides attorneys to help people with record expungement and helps with finding employment, housing, childcare and social service resources primarily for formerly incarcerated women of color and LGBTQ folks.

Gonzalez said the organization “tries to support this community in a holistic, wrap-around manner” because the barriers for women are different from men, and a lack of resources can contribute to high recidivism rates and perpetuates the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.

“Anything that is an impediment on the reentry journey we support with that,” Gonzalez said, adding that without housing, many formerly incarcerated people end up in temporary living situations or out on the streets, where they are more likely to be surrounded by drug use and may turn to “underground economies.”

Gonzalez was formerly incarcerated herself on multiple occasions prior to 2014 for charges ranging from being under the influence to grand theft auto, she said. However, she was able to move in with her mother following her incarceration and went on to attend UC Berkeley before returning to Fresno.

“I thought … I was meant to be a criminal. I was meant to be a gangster. I was meant to be incarcerated, because that’s everything that everyone told me,” Gonzalez said. “It wasn’t until I was a lot older that people told me, ‘No, you’re smart; you’re worthy of investment.’”

She added, “If in your community, you’re not hearing that you’re worthy of investment opportunities, you’re going to continue doing the same thing.”

Gonzalez said many of those she works with are not as fortunate as she is, nor do they have the security of family and stable housing. And for some, returning home could mean violating their probation if the people in their household are gang members – which is something that Haynes, the county’s chief probation officer, said is being addressed for those living in Fresno Housing Authority properties.

Gonzalez said her clients have reported discrepancies in what resources are made available by probation officers contributing to why many formerly incarcerated people are unaware of resources available in their communities.

Briana Zweifler, the youth law and policy attorney for community-based organization Barrios Unidos, said that although there are numerous federal and state laws that make funding sources available for formerly incarcerated youth, the funding is not getting to the people who need it most. Barrios Unidos is a community based organization that works with youth impacted by gangs.

“A lot of these programs have long waiting lists and a burdensome application process,” Zweifler said. “Basic needs aren’t being met. Our justice-involved youth are the most vulnerable, and there is just a lack of information about how to access these programs. The supportive infrastructure in the community is just completely lacking.”

Fresno Youth Rising, a program by Barrios Unidos, focuses on people 16-26 years old who are formerly incarcerated or have been impacted by the criminal justice system; it seeks to build leadership skills and educates youth about the political structure and systemic barriers.

Ruben Espinoza, a policy and youth advocate for the organization, said the program offers housing and employment assistance to low-income Black, Latino, southeast Asian and indigenious at-risk youth in south Fresno.

“One of the main issues I hear from young folks that I work with is housing; you know, it’s like the first step to achieving the goals they have put in place,” Espinoza said.

HOUSING LEADS TO ‘POWERFUL, TRANSFORMATIVE’ CHANGE

Christopher Washington was president of the Associated Student Government at Fresno City College in 2018 when he was charged with two felony counts and two misdemeanors. The assault felony charge and both misdemeanor charges – which he pleaded not guilty to – were dismissed prior to sentencing, according to court records.

He pleaded no-contest to the charge of dissuading a witness from testifying and was sentenced to five years probation.

Washington had already served several months in jail by sentencing and was released in April 2019, serving about six months total, according to court records.

Following Washington’s release from jail, his probation officer suggested he go to West Care, a rehabilitation facility, so he could learn to cope with his mother’s passing without alcohol.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t fix your life now, 10 years from now, you’ll still be on probation reporting to me,’” Washington said.

From January to April of 2020, Washington resided at West Care, but after his 90 days in the facility, he returned to couch surfing and staying in temporary shelters due to a lack of affordable housing options. All these made finding work challenging, Washington said.

“In my head, it was like, ‘All right, bro, you don’t have no place to stay, so you can’t worry about this appointment if you have to worry about where to stay.’ So I got to conquer the first battle, which is finding a place to stay, for me to even be able to get up and get dressed (for an interview).”

However, in 2020, while still drifting between friends’ houses and hotels, he got a job helping with COVID-19 community outreach at the African American Coalition, a department within the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission. During this time, a director from West Care helped him find a two-year affordable housing program – as of June, he has about six months left on his lease.

In January 2021, his probation was terminated because of a new California state law – AB 1950 which was signed into law in 2020 – that capped misdemeanor probation to one year and felony probation to two years for some offenses.

“So many powerful, transformative things have happened, even in my little one-bedroom,” Washington said.

The focal point of his living room is a wall with positive affirmations and kind words from friends and people who have visited his home throughout the past year. On another wall hang certificates and plaques of achievements; a photo of his mother sits near his desk.

“I’m over here, still furniture shopping, and still trying to get my apartment together,” he said. “But I have such a sense of happiness in my life.”

Washington now works for Alliance for Safety and Justice, an organization that hopes to replace “over-incarceration with more-effective public safety solutions.” He also works for Initiate Justice, an abolitionist and reform organization. He worked for Lourin Hubbard’s 2022 campaign for California’s 22nd Congressional District.

Washington was also reinstated as a Fresno City College student this year and plans to return to the Law Pathways program in the fall.

“I would never be able to say I can do all that,” he said, “without having stable housing.”

Washington’s post-incarceration success is often the exception, not the rule.

Although there are many obstacles that prevent advancement for formerly incarcerated people, according to the nonpartisan policy institute Center for American Progress (CAP) May 2021 report, the stigma of having a record is the major factor contributing to barriers for securing housing and economic stability.

Armando Alvarez Sr., known as “Chief,” has found out exactly how difficult it is to expunge his record. He was convicted of a felony charge in 2000 and another in 2002, and although he has never experienced homelessness, his recent request to clear his name and have his felonious record expunged was denied.

Alvarez, a newly retired boxer once ranked fifth in the nation, said he wants to give back to his community, and simply wants to clear his name and the stigma that is associated with a conviction record.

“I was advised to appeal, but I’m not sure if it’s even worth the trouble,” he said. A 2020 Expungement of Criminal Convictions Study conducted by Harvard Law Review shows that Alvarez represents one of an estimated 10% of formerly incarcerated Americans who are eligible to have their criminal records cleared but are unable to because of the cost, the complexity of petition-based court systems and other barriers.

BREAKING THE CYCLE AMIDST FRESNO’S HOUSING CRISIS

The city of Fresno is grappling with a housing crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – finding affordable housing has been a challenge, even for those who have not been formerly incarcerated.

As of May 2022, the average price of the available one-bedroom rentals is $1,044, according to ApartmentList.com. Mayor Jerry Dyer’s One Fresno Housing Strategy, released in April, also detailed a mismatch of supply and demand for low-income housing, stating that roughly two-thirds of Fresno renters pay more than 30% of their income in rent.

While resources for the Fresno homeless population have increased with the help of coronavirus relief funds from the state and federal government, the number of unhoused individuals in Fresno had gone up significantly, even before the pandemic.

The 2022 point-in-time count, an annual count of the unhoused population, is expected to release the latest unhoused population count in the Fresno and Madera areas in July, according to The Fresno Bee. However, in January, local officials estimated that the number of unsheltered residents in the city of Fresno is around 4,200.

City and county officials, housing and formerly incarcerated advocates and those with lived experience have sought solutions to address the housing insecurity that often accompanies incarceration.

The Here to Stay report, which Transform Fresno contracted the Thrivance Group to conduct, raised a potential policy solution that would block private landlords from conducting criminal background checks in most cases. Destiny Thomas, the founder of the Thrivance Group, recommended the policy as one of the top ways city officials can help Fresnans avoid displacement.

Fair Chance Housing policies are meant to remove barriers to housing, Thomas said. While the policy recommendation ranked high among the Anti-Displacement task force, the policy was not included in the One Fresno Housing Strategy.

Meanwhile, Advance Peace, a local gun-violence prevention program, has worked with Fresno Housing Authority to secure a handful of Section 8 vouchers for formerly incarcerated individuals whom they mentor, according to Advance Peace employee Marcel Woodruff.

Fresno County has also built up its shelter resources for unhoused people on probation and has shelter for anyone who needs a bed and is willing to comply with the program, according to Haynes, chief probation officer. Haynes, however, acknowledged that there are barriers to enter the program for some, especially for those in need of physical and mental assistance who may not be properly served at the existing shelters.

NEXT IN THE SERIES

In coming weeks, this series will explore the existing programs in Fresno for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking housing, share the challenges of those trying to navigate the system, and look into potential solutions that community members have rallied around. If you are a formerly incarcerated individual who has struggled to find housing in Fresno, reach out to reporter Cassandra Garibay at [email protected] to share your story.

Fresnoland’s reporting on formerly incarcerated individuals seeking housing, reported in partnership with reporter Jamila Harris, was made possible by funding from the James Irvine Foundation.

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