Once people are released from the South Detention Centre in Etobicoke, they can go any which way they choose. But the most popular option is across the street. 

The Reintegration Centre run by the John Howard Society is right across the road from Ontario's biggest jail, and one out of every four inmates walks straight there after being released.

But the centre is in peril. Its partners can no longer pay the rent that is required to stay in its prime location next to the giant jail, and the non-profit John Howard Society has until the end of March to figure out how to continue its services without the building.

"It's a bit of a crisis," Amber Kellen, the director of the reintegration centre, told Metro Morning. "People need a roof over their heads to make some important changes to their lives."

Province vows 'better reintegration services'

A growing number of people behind bars in Ontario are there because of mental illness or addiction problems.

They end up in jail not to serve a sentence, but because they're on remand; charged but awaiting trial. In fact, the number of people on remand has doubled in the past 10 years.

The number has gotten so big, Ontario's Minister of Correctional Services Yassir Naqvi has said many of them should be in treatment programs instead of in jail.

"Right now, it's very much a warehousing system," he said. "We have to focus on that by providing better mental health supports both inside the jails and outside, better programming inside our jails and of course better reintegration services as well."

The Reintegration Centre is key to that idea. It sees about 10 to 15 people per week average. When the jail is full, that number more than doubles, to 30 to 40 people per week.

The jail, which opened last January, currently has 890 inmates, but once it's full, 1,620 inmates are expected. The John Howard Society's research estimates that 33 to 44 per cent of people leaving jail are homeless.

Many of them walk across the road — a four minute walk, according to Google Maps.

Kellen remembers one recent example.

"I was here on Christmas Eve when a gentleman came in mid-morning very upset," she said. "He was wearing a jacket a few sizes too small, torn shoes, an old pair of pants. This man had psychiatric issues, he was agitated, physically shaking."

As it turns out, at the jail, authorities couldn't verify his prescription so he'd been without his medication for several days. The centre gave him mitts, socks, hat, a backpack; gave him food and a cup of coffee. He used the centre's phone to call his doctor; the doctor phoned the pharmacy with the man's prescription so he could get his medication at the pharmacy before the holidays.

"We gave him TTC fare to get to the pharmacy and he left. He was very grateful," she said. "I said to my husband when I got home that night, 'It's a good thing we were here.'"

Reintegration must continue

On March 31, the centre's core rental partner, COTA Health, no longer has the budget to continue paying rent. Even if the centre can't stay in its physical location, the plan is to keep offering its services, which it considers vital.

"I have to be honest with you; once we get past March 31st, it's very challenging for us," she said. "We'll keep operating, we're just not sure how."

Finding the location was "very challenging" in the first place, Kellen said. "Many building owners wouldn't lease to us because of our clientele," she said.

The building, located at 215 Horner Avenue, used to be National Silicates Office, a plastics manufacturer. It has been renovated to have private interview space and have storage for clothing and food.

But it's the location that perhaps means the most to the John Howard Society.

"Being right here, prisoners can walk up," said Kellen.

"So we'll offer something. Whether it's in a bus or a tent, we know we need to be here."