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Life on the street for homeless parolees: "It sucks"

Three years ago, in a feature titled "Over and Over Again," I looked at one of the primary reasons for the staggering failure rate of parolees in Colorado. That would be the fact that more and more prisoners are paroling homeless, with no job prospects and little preparation for what they're going to face living in a shelter or on the street. Before long the majority of them end up back in prison -- not for new crimes, usually, but for technical violations of their parole conditions, like not making curfew at the shelter or paying all the fees and restitution associated with their release.

This week, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition released a survey of parolees stashed in shelters, and the upshot of their fine work is that very little has changed since 2006. In fact, with the economy in the tank and even the kind of jobs parolees can get (asbestos removal, mine field sweeping) in short supply, it seems to be getting worse.

The Piton Foundation has estimated that a quarter of Denver's parolees are either in shelters or temporary housing. The CCJRC folks decided to survey parolees found at the eight emergency shelters in town and came back with some grim stats. More than sixty percent of them had no re-entry courses before leaving prison, "with the most prevalent reason being that a class was not offered."

More than two-thirds of the respondents were unemployed, and more than half of them hadn't had a job at all since they got out. Many mentioned ongoing issues getting mental-health treatment or staying off drugs and alcohol, especially when surrounded by winos and junkies of all kinds in shelters. When you take into account that 40 percent of all admissions to the state prisons are simply parolees coming back from a brief try at the streets, you have to wonder why our budget-conscious lawmakers aren't doing more to get these folks out of the revolving door, thereby saving hundreds of millions of dollars in additional incarceration costs.

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"It sucks. I'm broke. Nobody wants to help. Every door you go to gets shut," one parolee told CCJRC. "You feel like you're getting set up for failure."

Carol Peeples, the CCJRC re-entry coordinator who put together the report, says it's a combination of various hurdles that prevent the homeless from completing parole, including a 2001 city ordinance that makes it difficult for them to find temporary housing. "I was struck by the number of changes that could help," Peeples says. "Nothing glamorous, but small things, from case management to the way parole officers handle certain situations."

Although she surveyed eight locations, Peeples discovered that more than eighty percent of the shelter parolees were concentrated in one location -- the Salvation Army's Crossroads Overnight Shelter for Men on 29th Street, which happens to be the only one that accepts sex offenders. That isn't a good situation, not only because of the drug use in the immediate vicinity, but also because Crossroads recently announced that it will be closing down its shelter functions and turning into a transitional living facility. That will leave parole officers scrambling to find new beds for people already teetering on the edge of nowhere.

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