Thunder Bay·Audio

Transitional housing key to helping women break cycle of poverty, crime, prison: new Thunder Bay report

Thunder Bay needs more transitional housing for women who have been in jail, or experienced poverty and violence recommends a new report by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northwestern Ontario (EFSNWO) and researchers at the city's Lakehead University.

Elizabeth Fry Society of Northwestern Ontario, Lakehead University partner on research into housing, crime

Mary Kozorys, the program coordinator for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northwestern Ontario stands beside a portrait of the society's namesake in her office in Thunder Bay. New research, conducted in partnership with Lakehead University highlights the link between inadequate housing and involvement in the criminal justice system for marginalized women. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Thunder Bay needs more transitional housing for women who have been in jail, or experienced poverty and violence recommends a new report by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northwestern Ontario (EFSNWO) and researchers at the city's Lakehead University.

The study, which is one of the first of its type in Canada to examine the link between housing security and incarceration with respect to women, included interviews with social service providers, lawyers and women who are still incarcerated or have recently been released.

It was " an incredibly humbling experience" said Mary Kozorys, the EFSNWO program coordinator.

Housing 'severely impacts ability to get bail'

"Almost every single person we interviewed, or heard from, said if they had had stable housing to begin with, or if they had stable housing to return to, they would not be facing the situation that they are."

It's a cycle "that's almost impossible to break," she said. "Without stable housing, you may find yourself more vulnerable to becoming involved in activities that lead you into the criminal justice system, and when you are incarcerated as a result of that, you're going to be reintegrating into a community where there is no housing for you upon your release."

"If we can begin to stabilize people's housing situations, their path to reintegration becomes so much easier," Kozorys said.

The report found that a lack of access to suitable housing increases recidivism, can threaten a women's sobriety and recovery from other addictions, puts her at risk of violence or exploitation and "really severely impacts your ability to get bail."

Women couch-surf, return to abusive partners

"We see women who are incarcerated for longer periods, especially at the bail phase because they don't have a place they can go."

The legislation in Ontario has changed over the past year with respect to the conditions around bail housing, explained Kozorys, noting that "if you are living in subsidized housing, you can no longer turn to that social housing, that is a very important condition."

With Thunder Bay in the full grip of winter, the link between a safe warm place to sleep each night and possible involvement in criminal activity becomes more pronounced.  In exchange for shelter, some women will either go back to an abusive partner or return to the situation or neighbourhood which helped draw them into criminal activity in the first place. 

"You often pass women on the street and wonder where they're coming from or where they're going to and invariably so many of them are couch-surfing because they don't have a stable place to sleep, or some may have been in temporary shelters but they don't feel comfortable there, they don't feel their needs are being met."

Transitional housing must have access to services

Kozorys said most of the people interviewed for the report expressed a desire for some kind of all-female transitional housing, which would also offer access to mental health and addictions services, and space to rebuild family relationships, with provisions for children to stay overnight.

The society has received funding to begin consultations with services agencies and people in Thunder Bay to examine the feasibility of setting up a transition house for women in the city.

Kozorys noted in a written release that with respect to Indigenous women, who are disproportionately represented in the justice system, "it is especially important to understand that their criminalization may be intrinsically linked to the impacts of colonization, intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide."

She said many women also expressed a desire to return to their home communities after they have served their sentences, and the group is therefore also examining the possibility of establishing transitional housing in some First Nations.

The research was funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario.

You can hear the full interview with Mary Kozorys on CBC Superior Morning here.

Thunder Bay needs more transitional housing for women who have been in jail, or experienced poverty or violence. That's one of the findings of a new report by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northwestern Ontario and researchers at Lakehead University. 8:59