In June 2020, I interviewed Joseph Gaston and Christana Gamble, two Black people who live in Cleveland, Ohio, about their struggles to find housing after completing prison sentences. Their experiences illuminate a mass incarceration phenomenon known as collateral sanctions—further punishments for those who have already served time. Throughout the country, formerly incarcerated people have had their rental applications routinely rejected because of past felony or misdemeanor convictions. This “Never-Ending Sentence,” as the Re-Entry Housing Committee’s 2020 report is called, demonstrates how collateral sanctions in housing is part of systemic racism. According to “The Never-Ending Sentence,” 80% of Cleveland landlords can ban applicants with felony convictions, sometimes for life. Because of housing discrimination, many people with criminal records wind up homeless. According to Christopher Knestrick, the Executive Director of Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, 82% of the unhoused who use Cleveland’s shelters are Black, and many have been housing insecure.
These collateral sanctions persist despite a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Fair Housing Act makes it against the law to exclude an applicant simply because of a criminal record. Yet landlords and their management companies still routinely include questions about criminal records in their rental applications. Because Ohio incarcerates five Black people to every one white person, the consequence in housing amounts to discrimination. Though Cleveland and many other places have yet to eliminate this practice, some cities—including Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C.—have instituted reform, eliminating criminal records as a reason for turning down a housing application.
In Cleveland, the COVID-19 pandemic has struck Gaston and Gamble particularly hard, as they and so many others struggle to find shelter and build a new life. Ms. Gamble’s new re-entry program, “The House of Refuge,” has yet to open its doors because of the pandemic, but she’s been Zooming with new clients. (Both offered key input and suggestions for revisions when I showed them the poems.)
Special thanks to Maria Smith, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and Christopher Knestrick, of NEOCH, for connecting me with Mr. Gaston and Ms. Gamble, respectively. Thanks as well to Alissa Quart and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for support.
Read Philip Metres’s documentary poetry here in The Believer.
Philip Metres has written ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon 2020), Sand Opera, and The Sound of Listening. Awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Fellowship, three Arab American Book Awards, and two NEAs, he is a professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.