R.I. Nonprofit Dares to Help Ex-Convicts Succeed

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Direct Action for Rights And Equality (DARE) is a local organization made up of dedicated individuals fighting for basic equity. Their campaigns, led by community organizers and DARE members, dismantle systemic racism, sexism and economic injustice.

The Behind the Walls campaign, started in 1998, advocates for prison inmates and their families, and helps ex-convicts navigate the world outside once they are released.

One of the biggest hurdles for the DARE community with this project is the delicate issue of finding housing when a prisoner is released. The systems in place often do more to fuel more criminal behavior than help people who are trying to start over, and can even hurt citizens who have never committed a crime. In DARE’s experience, the root of the problem lies with Providence Housing Authority (PHA) policies.

Protocol requires that PHA look back 10 years — often longer in practice — for violent and drug-related crimes, and five years — often longer in practice — for any other crime in the housing application process. Applicants are denied in instances of felony, misdemeanors and sometimes even for arrests. Appeals exist but rarely result in an overturned decision. This leaves many people who have served time for their crime and are looking to make positive changes in their lives, unable to acquire one of the basic necessities that this requires, a roof over their head.

Ron is an ex-convict and single father of three who lost his wife to breast cancer. He is currently caring for his children alone in a 1½ bedroom apartment. Although Ron’s last conviction was in 1991 and he as served his time in jail, he remains unable to find the public housing he needs to care for his family. He has been put on a housing list before but is continually denied because of his record. Ron’s wife was also on the public housing list and was to be granted an apartment at the time of her death. Ron assumed he could take over her place given that the care of their children was to be his sole responsibility. He was denied, again.

“This process is a constant reminder of being a failure,” he said.

Ron’s story of waiting decades for adequate housing is common, but it’s the recently-released convict who is denied public housing who is at the greatest risk of returning to prison. Without a home address where a parole officer can visit, they will be found breaking parole and be quickly spit back into system only to start the cycle over again.

The PHA policy states that grounds for denial or eviction “include a history of criminal activity by any household member involving crimes of physical violence against other persons or property or any other criminal activity including drug related activity that would adversely affect the health, safety, or well being of other tenants or staff or cause damage to the property.”

This policy may sound reasonable in theory but the reality of how it’s enforced is what DARE is fighting to change.

Dee Dee first lost her Section 8 housing in 2012, because PHA accused her son, who had a criminal record, of living with her. Dee Dee, a single mother, was living with her two younger children but her eldest lived elsewhere. She, in fact, had a restraining order on her son, because she knew his presence was problematic. Dee Dee, however, didn’t have the resources for legal representation to prove this and eventually her home was taken away.

Dee Dee managed to stay in school while she and her children were transient for more than a year, sleeping wherever they could. Studying communications and film media, she threw herself into her studies and began working on a documentary film about the housing injustices.

She received a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, which provided seed money for her documentary. Today, she has reapplied and has been granted housing. She continues to work on her film.

She has hours and hours of footage of people, like herself, who have struggled within the city’s housing system and is hoping for more grant money to get her project to the editing stage.

Another way PHA policy can unfairly play out, according to DARE, is the eviction of an entire household when one family member is convicted — and sometimes even just arrested — of a crime.

For DARE, these are issues far greater than housing. Members say it’s markedly about race. From their work knocking on doors and talking to tenants, it’s clear that in Providence there are few blacks living in public housing today, according to the organization.

DARE community organizer Sophia Wright equates this to fewer opportunities for blacks to be there in the first place, because they are statistically arrested and charged more often. The frequent and often unwarranted arrest of blacks — men especially — only perpetuates their inability to secure a place to live, she said.

The main goal of the Behind the Walls campaign is to put pressure on the PHA. “PHA doesn’t want to talk to us but we keep demanding,” Wright said. “We’ve gathered the stories from our members and it’s DARE’s job to get people together and organized.”

The group’s demands are fairly straightforward. For new applicants: no housing denials for misdemeanors, arrests or non-violent crimes; only consider denials for violent felonies committed in the past three years; no denials final without an in-person appeal.

For continued occupancy: no eviction without conviction; no household evictions for the record of any one resident or guest.

DARE is also hoping PHA will provide more training for people involved with the appeals process, so they have a greater understanding of the benefits of housing in an applicant’s long-term success.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) thinks broader about these issues and is encouraging housing authorities across the country to revise their policies. HUD guidelines outline best practices the agency believes should be adopted by all public housing authorities.

“People who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity to become productive citizens and caring parents, to set the past aside and embrace the future,” Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary, wrote in a 2011 letter.