Pedro Morales is standing in the middle of a vacant lot on Howard Avenue with a rake in his hand, sweating.
Around him, people are cutting the grass and clearing away trash and debris in the space, which tonight will provide 20 homeless people with a place to sleep, courtesy of low income community members and activists working with the Amistad Catholic Worker group that is headquartered on the nearby Rosette Street.
Morales won’t be one of them, but the then-Columbus House resident is here because he knows, firsthand, the situation faced by those who will be pitching tents at Amistad’s second encampment on New Haven city property.
“It’s a problem in New Haven,” Morales says. “You have people out in the streets. I’m homeless. I know what people go through.”
Sitting outside the lot on a pile of sleeping bags against the fence is Roosevelt Watkins. He too, can relate-he slept in a tent along the West River while living homeless for 4 years. Watkins and his fellow activists are here to not only provide a “safe haven” for those who did not get one of the 75 Emergency Shelter Management-run Grand Avenue homeless shelter beds, but make a statement about a problem that persists after the Columbus House overflow facility closes its doors for the warmer season and affordable housing remains a scarce and expendable commodity.
“It’s the same question now that was then,” Watkins says. “Where then, shall we go?”
That question-written on some of the signs being posted around the camp and along the front of the fence-has been Amistad’s rallying cry since its campaign began with the closing of the overflow shelter. The difference between Watkins and Morales is, the former has found his answer. Watkins recently obtained a Section 8 voucher and has a place to live-he’s just here to help those who are still homeless. For Morales, however, government funded low income housing is just one more place that he can’t go.
In 1996 he was arrested in Springfield Massachusetts for drug possession-a felony. He did two and a half years before coming to Connecticut to stay with his girlfriend in Hartford. But it was when he got to New Haven that he realized the punitive consequences of his criminal history-Federal law prohibits local housing authorities from giving Section 8 vouchers to individuals with a drug felony on their record.
“If we apply anyplace we get denied because of the record,” Morales says. “It’s still haunted me. I went to jail, [but] still pay for the same crime.”
And it gets worse, says Barbara Fair, activist and co-founder of My Brother’s Keeper, a New Haven grassroots organization that campaigns for justice system reform. Residents of Section 8 housing are not allowed to have former drug offenders living with them-even if they are family members, she says.
“A lot of these guys were living with their girlfriends,” Fair says. “If they were found out, they [the ex-offender] could be sent back to prison and the girl could lose her housing. They can’t go back home, and many of them will end up homeless. Drug policy really breaks up families. You can murder somebody and get out, and have less limitations.”
For individuals like Morales, it’s just one element of a perfect storm made up of the criminal record, a consequently difficult job search, and on top of all that, the inability to access Section 8 housing-a last resort for Connecticut low income individuals facing a National Low Income Housing Coalition reported $535 gap between rent that is affordable and the state’s $1,197 fair market rate for a two bedroom apartment. A minimum wage earner in Connecticut is $745 shy of market rate, according to the 2014 Coalition report, which was released before the state’s minimum wage increased to $10.10 per hour.
“Many of these people are living in these public housing projects already, so you’re effectively making them homeless,” Fair says.
And the aftermath of that storm is the number of former inmates ending up right back where they started. Drug offenders were the second highest category for recidivism in a Congressional Research Service reported study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for a 5-year period beginning in 2005. Seventy-five percent of the 404,638 inmates released in 30 states were re-arrested within the time frame of the study, according to the Bureau.
“When we talk about people going back to prison, the likelihood of them going back is reduced by a strong support system,” says Gary Holder Winfield, the Deputy Majority Leader for the Connecticut House Democrats and drug policy reform community activist in New Haven, which is a part of the district he serves. “That [Section 8 policy] might cut off access to your support networks, and you’re more likely to go back to prison.”
And too often the circumstances they face coming out of prison are just exacerbated versions of what factored into their incarceration in the first place, Holder Winfield says.
“I think we need to think about not just how we punish people, but what situation they’re in,” he says. “Did we make sure they had access to transportation, to jobs, and economic support? When people say, ‘just do right’, it’s not easy when there’s no opportunity for you.”
In Westville, a neighborhood in Taunton, Massachusetts, Morales found that opportunities to earn a living by ‘doing right’ were far less available than the illicit routes he would end up taking.
“It was hard to find a job,” Morales says. “It was hard to get an apartment. I went through a lot of struggle. I started selling, then I started using, because I was going through a lot of depression.”
He moved on to Springfield, where he had better luck finding work.
“I worked in a pizza place, a car wash, construction-you name it,” Morales says.
But his habit stayed with him, and he was caught for possession within 1000 feet of a school, which, under Massachusetts laws that designated the distances as “drug free zones”, adds a mandatory 2 and a half years to a sentence. The law was adjusted in 2012 to reduce the zone to 300 feet.
Through a plea bargain, he cut the additional time to 1 year and did 2 and a half years total, but he feels that he’s still being penalized.
“We’re human beings-we make mistakes,” Morales says. “But you can’t move forward and do the things you need to-get a job, whatever-because you can’t even find housing.”
Recently, he did. Morales is in a supportive housing program for recovering addicts, because two months ago, he started using again. He’s glad to have a roof over his head, but he still can’t find work-even in minimum wage jobs.
As far as his housing situation goes, he knows he caught a break, but he also knows that there are many others like him who very well might not. In 2011, there were a Bureau of Justice Statistics-reported 501,500 drug offenders in state or federal prisons nationwide, according to The Sentencing Project. Since 1990, an average of 590,400 inmates have been released annually, according to the 2005 Bureau study detailed in the Congressional Research Service report.
If Section 8’s ban on former drug offenders remains status quo, where then, shall they go?
“A lot of people are struggling,” Morales says. “A lot of people are on the street because they have a record. They should give you a break. I believe in second chances.”