HARTFORD — Nearly half the people entering homeless shelters in Connecticut in the past three years have spent time in a state prison or jail at some point in their life, according to data collected by the state.
The prevalence of former inmates at shelters highlights challenges many of them face with employment and housing, even in a state that has prioritized criminal justice reforms and supporting ex-convicts as they reenter society.
Since 2016, of 17,226 people who have stayed at homeless shelters, 8,187 had previously spent time in jail or prison. The data was provided by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, which checked data reported to the coalition by shelters against names of inmates held by the Department of Correction.
National studies have shown ex-convicts are far more likely to face homelessness, but advocates say more needs to be done to build on efforts that began under the Second Chance Society initiative launched under former Gov. Dannel Malloy.
One of the bills enacted in 2017 under his administration restricted employers from asking about a prospective employee's criminal history, arrests or charges.
Democratic state Sen. Saud Anwar, who also co-chairs the joint Housing Committee, said during the last legislative session that another bill would have restricted landlords from asking about renters' criminal history, which would have helped to address discrimination, but it failed to pass.
"I think a lot of work has happened, but at the same time there still are areas of opportunity that we need to work on," Anwar said. "The state of Connecticut has done reasonably well in addressing the homeless issue, but it is far from over."
Of the shelter users who had spent time behind bars, 3,562 had been released from jail or prison within the previous three years. Roughly half had been serving prison sentences, while others were held in pretrial detention.
Of those who were sentenced, more than 80% were released without parole or a stay at a halfway house, which could indicate they were convicted of relatively minor charges, according to Richard Cho, executive director of the coalition.
Marc Pelka, the top criminal justice aide to Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said the data reveals a surprising amount of overlap between shelters and the correction system. It will help the administration think through new ways to help former inmates find housing, he said.
Barry Marchinkoski, who has long had a heroin addiction and has been in and out of jails and homeless for more than two decades, faced challenges trying to find housing after he was most recently incarcerated in 2016 for larceny, he said.
"It's hard to pick yourself back up, because I've been doing it for two years. I've been in five different programs and I still undergo, you know, a lot of barriers to help me get where I want to get, 'cause I want to do it the right way," he said. "I know how to hustle and I know how to do things, but I don't want to do it that way because I don't appreciate it and I don't feel good about myself."
At one point, he said, he was eligible for an apartment through a program of the homeless coalition but ended up getting arrested shortly thereafter.
Marchinkoski, who grew up in Middletown, said that after his father died in 1995, he ended up becoming homeless for most of the time after that. He has a brother and sister in Florida and other relatives throughout the state but doesn't stay in contact with them, he said.
His closest relative was a brother who died in 2015.
"I had lost my brother; he literally died in my arms from a heroin overdose," he said. "We were real close."
Now two years sober, Marchinkoski is studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor because he wants to help others avoid the same mistakes.
Many ex-convicts stay at shelters because they get caught in a cycle of arrests for low-level offenses and homelessness, according to Robert Friant, managing director of New York-based Corporation for Supportive Housing. His organization worked with the Malloy administration to expand the Connecticut Collaborative on Re-Entry, which aims to help people in such situations find stable housing.
Corrections spokeswoman Karen Martucci said the department has many different programs that help those who are about to be released from prison, such as identification procurement, which helps inmates get important documents like birth certificates, Social Security cards or driver's licenses they need to get housing and other services.
"Budget constraints are always a challenge, but the Department of Correction has worked tirelessly at finding creative ways to fulfill our mission to prepare people for a successful return to the community," she wrote in an email.