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Federally subsidized permanent housing opens for ex-convicts

Ex-convicts will be offered federally subsidized permanent housing in Rhode Island for the first time starting this month. When Open Doors, a local non-profit organization dedicated to helping former prisoners reenter society, opens its new housing facility this month, 19 homeless ex-convicts will move into their first permanent home since leaving prison.

Finding a place to stay is a pressing concern for people coming out of prison, said Sol Rodriguez, executive director of Open Doors. Homelessness exacerbates problems associated with ex-convicts, such as persistent unemployment, drug use and recidivism. People returning from prison often suffer housing discrimination, which prolongs homelessness.

Every year, 1,200 people leave state prison and return to Providence, according to a report released by Open Doors in 2005. Two hundred of these people will be homeless, and many others will have to live illegally or in overcrowded apartments, the report states.

Government-subsidized housing programs are legally allowed to turn away prospective residents with criminal records. In 1996, Congress passed a series of restrictions on access to public housing for ex-convicts. The statute bars convicted felons from receiving subsidized housing for 10 years. It also prohibits anyone convicted of a sexual offense or of drug manufacturing from living in public housing. Open Doors cannot accept sexual offenders or convicted drug manufacturers as a result of this law.

Rhode Island has seen homelessness increase 20 percent over the past two years, according to press release from the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Due to the recession and the slashing of services aimed at keeping people in their homes, locals have been driven to the streets in record numbers.

Organizers at Open Doors hope that offering housing to people with criminal records will help keep them from returning to jail. Recidivism is common in Rhode Island. In 2004, 3,324 offenders were released from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Of that group, 32 percent returned to prison within one year, and 46 percent were convicted of additional crimes within two years.

Twelve out of 15 formerly incarcerated respondents said they felt at risk of recidivism or relapse into drug use, according to the 2004 Open Door study. The same number of respondents said their housing situation contributed to this risk.

People returning from prison often find themselves in homeless shelters or transitional housing. Ex-convicts can enter these programs, but they continue to face discrimination due to their criminal records.

Open Doors' new facility will provide permanent housing, which allows people with criminal records to complete the process of rehabilitation without having to worry about where to sleep every night, Rodriguez said. Open Doors has secured enough funding from various government sources to keep their new building open for 15 years.

The organization will also provide employment services from their new location and continue to promote financial and computer literacy, mentoring, support for alcohol and drug abusers and voter registration. Housing is just one important part of returning to society, Rodriguez said. "If a tenant moves in and suddenly loses employment and can't pay the rent, we have an employment office," she added.

Though Open Doors' facility does not have as many restrictions as other publicly funded housing developments, not everyone with a criminal record qualifies to live in the new building. Applicants must have an individual annual income below $23,000. Open Doors will offer rooms to people who have consistently participated in their programs and have some kind of income. The rooms will be a reward for demonstrating a concerted effort at rehabilitation, Rodriguez said.

Open Doors vouches for all of its residents, so the applicants have to go through an extensive vetting process. Some of its new residents have been homeless for up to six years.

Obtaining government support for this project was a long and arduous task, Rodriguez said. Since it is the first housing of its type, policymakers were less willing to contribute taxpayer money. "Given the population, we couldn't find anyone who was willing to take a risk on them," Rodriguez said. It took Open Doors five or six years to secure all the funding necessary to open the building to its new residents.

It acquired an old ice cream factory in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Providence and converted it into housing. The basement of the building will serve as the organization's new headquarters. The decade-old organization received two grants from the Environmental Protection Agency for the project, allowing it to reach LEED Gold building standards, which certify an environmentally sustainable structure.


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