In 2018 there were close to 15,000 people serving time in prisons across the state, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections. As of last month over 500 people were released into Lane County.
For those returning to society, freedom comes with the catch of having a criminal record that follows them for the rest of their lives. One organization based in Eugene is helping them find a roof over their heads.
Chris Fish describes himself as a normal guy. He wakes up goes to the gym and he’s off to work. We’re in the fitness center at his apartment building and he’s showing me his morning routine.
FISH: "Most people take Xanax or some type of a mood stabilizer, this is my mood stabilizer.”
The gym looks like one you might find at a high end apartment complex. There are treadmills, dumbbells, and a few weight lifting machines. The only difference? These apartments are for people with criminal histories.
FISH: “Got addicted to drugs, spiraled out of control with my addiction. To supplement the lack of income I had for my addiction I started committing crimes.”
Fish lives at the Oaks at 14th, it’s an apartment complex run by Sponsors an organization that provides housing for recently released prisoners. Fish says he was excited to leave prison, but his future felt uncertain.
FISH: “Scared because you’re trying to find housing with a felony or a job, that kind of stuff. Gets kind of scary because you don’t know what you’re going to do.”
Fish says he doesn’t where’d he’d be if he hadn’t found Sponsors. The organization has a thorough vetting process where applicants are selected based on criteria like the severity of their crimes, and their risk to re-offend.
Sponsors director Paul Solomon says the day people exit prison is a crucial point in their lives. If that person doesn’t have a place to stay, he says, reintegrating into society becomes difficult.
SOLOMON:“You have no money you know. How do you get a job, how do you engage in treatment, how do you maintain compliance with the conditions with your release if you don’t have any support at all.”
Solomon says about half of the people released are homeless or indigent.
SOLOMON: “So without some type of support or assistance, many if not most are likely to gravitate back to the environments that let to their incarceration in the first place, or be on the streets homeless.”
Solomon says there’s a misconception that once convicted felons serve their time, that’s the end of it.
However, they still have a record, and that can make it hard to move on from the past.
Under the Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal for providers to deny housing based solely on a criminal record. Allan Lazo with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon says landlords must show they have a legitimate concern.
LAZO: “We need to assess what the extent of somebody’s criminal history is how long ago it took place. What the crimes that occurred were, how old was the person, what were the circumstances.”
In 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance advising against blanket bans on renters with criminal histories. Lazo says this was based on a 2015 Supreme Court ruling on the disparate impact theory.
LAZO: “If that factor’s used in screening criteria in housing, it then has a disproportionate impact on the ability of black men and Latinos to get into housing when they might be released from incarceration of if they just have a criminal history.”
He says it’s reasonable that housing providers want to keep their properties and tenants safe. But rehabilitated ex-felons, he says, deserve a chance to move forward with their lives.
Back at The Oaks at 14th that’s what Timothy Lewis is trying do. Lewis was released in March.
LEWIS: “I’m just living one day at a time right now.”
He’s been in and out of prison, serving over 30 years for multiple charges including assault and robbery. Now, the 72-year-old says he spends his time going to AA, group meetings, and crocheting.
LEWIS: “What I would like to do is, I’d like to be able to afford a nice home in a suburban area and have just likemaybe a horse, a couple of motorcycles and stuff like that.”
Lewis says he used to have a lot of anger issues. He attributes this to a car accident in the 50’s that left him in a coma for 20 days, and ended his career as a Marine.
LEWIS: “I think in life you get a certain amount of bitterness and you turn and be your own worst enemy and you get mad at people because of what’s happening to you as opposed to you know taking life as it comes.”
He says he’s working on finding an apartment outside of Sponsors, but isn’t sure if his criminal record will have any impact on his application.
Sponsors is currently working on a project for additional housing that’s set to break ground in April. Their Tiny Houses project was granted $200,000 by the Lane County Board of Commissioners.