Shelter a scarce commodity for felons

A criminal record blocks permanent housing options

Richard and Kathy Carse
Richard and Kathy Carse

You commit a crime, do your time and, appropriately rehabilitated, having learned your lesson, you pick yourself up and move on. That’s how it goes in theory anyway, on the proverbial drawing board.

However, reality is not a drawing board. The cold, hard fact is that after completing your sentence you can well find yourself free from being behind bars, yet still serving what amounts to a life sentence.

For example, after paying your debt to society you’re expected to get a job and pay taxes like every other citizen. Yet you are denied that fundamental right all Americans can claim — the ability to have your voice heard at the polling place.

Even when you aren’t prohibited by law, common practice can keep you disenfranchised. Richard Carse, presently living on the right side of the law, has run into a bureaucratic brick wall in search of a landlord who will accept someone with a felony in his or her past. No matter that for five years, from 2012 until this past May, Carse stayed on the straight and narrow as a trouble-free tenant.

“I know I did something wrong,” Carse admits. “But, I paid for it.” With a six-and-a-half-year term spread between prisons in Stillwater, Oak Park Heights and St. Cloud. “I’m not like that anymore.”

The offense that he was incarcerated for, assault, along with the very mention of the word Stillwater, is sufficient to give one pause. On the other hand, like he says, “That was in my wild days.”

No one has had any trouble out of Carse since he left prison. He’s wisely kept his nose clean, a living example that rehabilitation works.

He’d caught a break landing housing where his record wasn’t held against him and gratefully exercised the good sense to hold on to it — until Christian Restoration Services, on Du Pont Avenue in North Minneapolis, replaced their board chair.

“For some reason they got rid of him,” said Carse. “When they voted him out, all the housing that he had kept from foreclosure went into foreclosure. They saved some houses, but not the one I was in.”

The predicament doesn’t impact him alone. His wife of 11 years, Kathy Carse, who also occupied the North Minneapolis studio apartment, was put out on the street right beside him. She stays on the female side of the building they currently reside in and searches right along him for permanent housing that shows little signs of materializing.

“It gets you down, but you can’t give up,” Kathy Carse says. “You have to keep trying.”

She tries while subsisting at the Salvation Army Harbor Light shelter in downtown Minneapolis, where she was fortunate enough to find space in a wing that doesn’t charge for residency. Otherwise, she’d be paying, she says, close to $700 a month.

Richard, too, avoids paying that amount though under crowded conditions — 90 men in bunk beds. But, he notes, “It stinks so bad on the men’s side I can barely stand to be in there.”

If there is an up side, it’s that by saving their income they are well prepared to pay the required month’s rent and security deposit a new landlord would expect without having to resort to applying for emergency relief.

Stuck out on the street during business hours, Richard Carse doesn’t have the fundamental comfort of at least being able to conduct his housing search by arranging appointments from home behind a desk. So, he works with his cell phone and accesses his email account, which Project for Pride in Living showed him how to set up, at the public library.

Simple as that is, not everyone knows how to do it. He completed high school but has no further education and navigates the system by benefit of determination and his wits.

The Carses maintain a folder of business cards from at least a dozen organizations. “These are places that are supposed to help us,” Richard says. One place where he has registered is Resource, which has a solid track record for providing social services. Best known for drug treatment, it’s a support program and multiservice drop-in center with a range of programs, including help finding housing.

Heidi Kammer, VP of Chemical and Mental Health, seated in a conference room at 1900 Chicago Ave. in Minneapolis, explains that Resource isn’t explicitly a housing resource, though they can network through Collaboration of Housing Resources (COHR) and assist in that area those who fulfill criteria.

“Resource focuses on meeting unmet community needs,” says Krammer. This includes men and women with criminal pasts. Approximately 60 percent of clients have had serious run-ins with the law.

“We create a bridge. At our community support program, Lighthouse, people receive an array of services. When someone [comes in] who has a criminal history or involvement, we may be able to help them through our homeless project.”

Carse fits Resource’s mental health mission, having been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, which he says his doctor related to his imprisonment and/or his four years of service in the Army. He also fits Resource’s mission to help the homeless.

Another place Richard Carse and other people in this predicament turn to is Simpson Housing Services, also a participant of the COHR. Their stated purpose is to house, support and advocate for the homelessness regardless of individual history. The perspective is that everyone has the right to safe and affordable housing. Including former felons.

“This is a substantial barrier to stable housing for far too many people,” says Stephen Horsfield, executive director at SHS. “The mission of Simpson Housing Services is to house, support and advocate for those members of our community experiencing homelessness. One of the organizational values that drives this work is that everyone deserves fair and equal access to safe and stable housing.

“In 2014, we placed 488 households into permanent housing,” Horsfield continues, “which includes single adults and families. Most enter our programs directly from Hennepin County shelters. Of the adults served, more than 50 percent have criminal records.

“One of the key roles that we play in this process of housing placement is advocating for our program participants in dealing with landlords and property owners. Without stable housing, anyone is subject to tremendous stress, which can result in acts of desperation. Fair and equal access to housing for all makes for healthy and safe communities.”

He also notes that “some of our community partners that operate programs specifically designed to provide support following criminal convictions [are] Amicus, RS Eden and 180 Degrees.”

It’s a not pretty picture, but not an altogether hopeless one, either. It often means you have to work much harder than the next person for something as basic as a roof over your head.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.