Never-Ending Sentences - Believer Magazine
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Never-Ending Sentences

Documentary Poetry About Housing Discrimination and Prison Re-Entry
by Philip Metres
October 27th, 2020

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. 

—Philip Metres

The House of Refuge

              —The Testimony of Chaplain Christana Gamble1

On a hot June morning during the pandemic, we Zoomed into each other’s separate Cleveland rooms. Her virtual background: space, a sky of stars and a dark planet rimmed by light. Mine: an office, shelves lined with books….

                             I love the library.

                             You know I’m pretty
                                                          much an open book
                             and I want to share my story
                                              because it helps others

a violet flower
tucked in her
pulled-up hair

                             (Be with us, Lord,
                                              as I enter
                                                          my story):

                             I was born in Hickman Mills, Missouri, 
                             to a white preacher and a black mother
                             in the Sixties 

                             Before Cleveland, I was in the country
                              riding on horses
                              not living in public
                                housing 

                             When they divorced, I moved 
                             from a white world
                                     to Cleveland, mom’s breakdown

                             shock treatment

                             in foster care
                             (God blessed me quick
                                      but I was rebellious) 

                             at Metzenbaum’s Children’s Center2 
                             and public housing, I knew
                                    something was not right

                             it wasn’t clean
                             it was wild

                             and I adapted to the atmosphere

                             My boyfriend was a dealer
                                  and I let him in my house
                             I was nineteen

                             The first time I went to court, 
                              they kept saying 
                                           trafficking, trafficking

                             and I didn’t know
                                 what they were talking about

                             I was nineteen
                             and Judge Gaul3 didn’t ask me if I needed 
                                       treatment, he asked me: 
                              what’s more important
                              the drugs
                              or your child? 

                             When I came home, I don’t know
                                       how I ended up
                             in the same…

                             more drugs, prison 
                                                again

                             Why? You go through the programs 
                                              and probation
                              you work
                                                    the case plan
                                         and you still have no housing

                             and never knew it was illegal4  
                                            until last year, you see
                              the system was not made for me

the indigo 
screen dances 
around her 
like a dreamcoat

                             But God, His hand, His 
                              hand
                             Everything that has happened has led
                             to this

                             (God, I cannot leave Him off my lips)

                             I’ve been in and out of County all my life

                             I’ve been in City Mission I’ve been in Women in Transition 
                             (now called Front Steps) I’ve been in Cats 
                             I’ve been in prison I’ve been in foster care 
                             I’ve been homeless I’ve lived under bridges5

                             I’ve been through all of that
                             and so I know

                             Ever since I was little, my mom
                                         always asked why
                              I brought in the strays

                             Don’t they have a home? she’d say

                                            But that’s how I’ve been

                             Because if you don’t have a safe place to dwell
                             the afflictions
                             will descend

                             I looked and looked
                             I waited and waited
                                                                           Eden6 Shelter Care7
                             finally
                             took me in         mental illness diagnosis
                                                           unwrote my record

                             Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless8 has been my tent

                             and now I’ve made The House of Refuge9 

her phone rang, (a client)
she said
and answered it

                             Chaplain Gamble
                             may I help you

and all went mute 
for a moment, indigo
background
dancing on her skin

her words for her
client alone

                             I’m back 

she said

                             and so my heart 

                             My ministry, the House of Refuge
                                           a peaceful restful
                                                          place

                             The House of Refuge is up and ready 
                                          the fridge
                             is full
                                                       the microwave is ready

                             because of my past I was always afraid

                             I’m untaught but I’m trained by the Lord

                             What I want for people 
                                           is what God gave me

                             food, atmosphere, a people that love you 
                             without feeling
                                                           degraded

                           and so my heart and I am so glad to say that I can confidently
                                           and passionately

                             all along I’ve been trained 

                             I was walking down the street and the Lord
                                                           spoke to me
                                                                          and said, open the door

                             And I’m not afraid of my past anymore

                             And the door opened

1 Special thanks to Chaplain Christana Gamble for her conversation, warmth, and testimony. Christana wanted to thank Sister Linda Catanzaro for her mentorship in the Ignatian Spirituality Project while Christana was in County Jail, and director Sherri Horton-Brandon for her program Women in Transition (Front Steps), which provided shelter and training for Christana as she transitioned from homelessness.

2 Metzenbaum Center is a temporary shelter for housing juveniles in the justice system. For more on the history of child services in Cleveland: https://case.edu/ech/articles/c/child-care

3 For more on the controversial judicial practices of Judge Daniel Gaul:
https://serialpodcast.org/season-three/2/transcript

4 For more information about routine housing discrimination for those with criminal records, please read: http://www.thehousingcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/A-Never-Ending-Sentence-2020.pdf and https://www.cleveland.com/business/2020/01/a-criminal-record-is-a-never-ending-sentence-for-cuyahoga-county-housing-applicants-report-says.html. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Housing Act included disparate impact claims, which now makes it against the law to exclude an applicant simply on the basis of having a criminal record. Special thanks to Attorney Maria Smith (Legal Aid Society of Cleveland) for her insights into what is known as collateral sanctions—ongoing punishment for those who have served their time.

5 For more information about City Mission: https://www.thecitymission.org/ For more information about Women in Transition (now called Front Steps): https://www.frontstepsservices.org/our-history

6 Eden, Inc., short for Emerald Development and Economic Network, Inc. (EDEN) is a 501 (c)(3) agency of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, dedicated to “providing housing solutions to people facing housing insecurities and homelessness.”
https://www.edeninc.org/about/

7 Shelter Care Plus is one of the programs offered by Eden, Inc. https://www.edeninc.org/program-shelter-plus-care-2/. It provided a workaround to provide Christana with housing, despite her record.

8 For more information about the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, check out https://www.neoch.org/. Special thanks to Chris Knestrick for connecting me with Christana Gamble.

9 To contact The House of Refuge emergency hotline for services: 216-713-8364. To contribute to The House of Refuge, you can send a check to House of Refuge Inc., P. O. Box 17327, Cleveland, OH 44117. www.houseofrefugeinc.org

Disparate Impacts

              —The Testimony of Joseph Gaston1

I’ve moved around 
my whole life
              Cincinnati Columbus Nashville Cleveland

              after I got out
              (prison)

                            I was homeless for just 
                            over five years

                                          always in motion

“Judge Boyko… to take senior status” (Cleveland.com)2 

nobody but nobody 
would rent to me

“I intend to maintain 
pretty much a full docket, 
but maybe a little less to enable me 
to travel and sit on other courts…” Boyko said.

                            I went to ten different apartments 
                            their management companies
                                          all rejected me 
                            for felony conviction

                                          it was discrimination 

                            I got so fed up I asked Legal Aid 
                            I asked the Urban League 
                            the Ohio Civil Rights Commission 
                            but no one would 
                                                        represent me

everyone told me it was a useless fight 
              told me the judge would rule 
                                                        against
                                          everyone told me to wait 

              so I took three months 
              filed my own case 

                                                        based on “disparate impact”

                                                        it was a good
                                                        lawsuit really beautiful

Plaintiff contends the Defendants engaged in discriminatory housing practices, including refusal to rent, discrimination in rental terms and refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies and practices, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. He further alleges he has a disability which substantially impair major life functions, but he does not elaborate on what his disability is. It appears he may be suggesting his prior conviction is a disability.3

                            every housing discrimination case
                                          goes to Judge Boyko

                            everyone knows Judge Boyko
                                          Judge Boyko has performed well
                                                        for the system

Opinion and Order: Plaintiff’s Motion to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (Doc. No. 2) is granted, his Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction (Doc. No. 3) and his Motion for Appointment of Counsel (Doc. No. 4) are denied, and this action is dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1915(e). The Court certifies, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3), that an appeal from this decision could not be taken in good faith. Judge Christopher A. Boyko on 2/27/2019.(S,SR)

              So I just
              gave up

                                                        I wore out my eyes 
                                                                      I’m nearsighted now, need glasses to read

                                          what I see: 
                                          the system is rigged

“It’s meaningful, it’s rewarding, frustrating at times,
just like anything else,” the judge said. 
“But overall, I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

Cuyahoga County is a haven
                            for housing 
                                          discrimination 

                                                                      an incestuous marriage
                                                                      between the legal system
                                                                      and the homeless situation

                            they can’t let you
                            win

              representative democracy looks like 
                                          a good idea 
                            but you can diminish
                                          the role of the populace

“Division hurts, and it’s felt 
everywhere, I think,” the judge said.  

              I was homeless for over 
                                          five years on a waiting list at Eden4
                                          five 
                                          years 

                                          no one should have to wait five years for housing

              some guys tried to jump me
              in the shower at 2100 Lakeside 
              I didn’t comply

              they threw me out

                                          in the woods
                                                        living in the streets, sleeping

                                          for a car, started 
                                                        raised enough
                                                                      sleeping there

                                          then in trains and buses

                            some drivers let you ride all night long

                                          I liked the 22nd
                                          downtown to the airport
                                          and back

                                                        it’s a long route

                            other drivers make you get off

                                                        it’s a hard life

I wouldn’t want anyone
to suffer like that

                                          used to shower in the rec center
                                          kept my bag with me

                                                        kept my hygiene up

                            but I never begged
                                          I wasn’t brought up
                                                        like that

At the naturalization ceremony, 
Judge Boyko reads a poetic statement 
by Dean Alfange5:

I do not choose to be a common man… 
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
Nor my dignity for a handout
I will never cower before any master
Nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect.”6

                            police spend most their time
                            harassing homeless people

                            I got a ticket for sleeping
                                          for sleeping!

I looked it up 
there is no law that says 
you can’t fall asleep
in the state of Ohio

                                          I almost died
                                          got shot at on West 25th
                                          got blood clots in my legs
                                          from sleeping upright on buses

it’s a hard life

                                                                      social justice institutions
                                                                      have become part of the system

                                                        everyone is part
of this system                                                                                    

Federal judges often work hard to maintain
their judicial independence, 
as the appointment is a lifetime one

                                                        Judge Boyko will be rewarded well

                            I seek no earthly reward
                                          just change

                            I’m in Eden housing on Euclid
                            when I got out
                            of prison I wanted to leave
                                          the state 
                                                        they said I had to stay:

                                                        it’s called “community control”
                                                        to maintain parole
                                          they don’t want the money
                                                        leaving the state

                            if I live righteously, on the day of judgment
                            I will not be wronged 

                                          the change I seek in the system
                                          may never become reality
                                                        but I must try

              [the line goes
                                          quiet when I ask Joseph 
                                                                                    his dreams]

                                          some day I’d like to be a cook
                                                        or a youth advocate

                                          and I’d like to see the world
                                                        look into
                                                                      the Peace Corps

The judge has offer to teach U.S. law 
. . . in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, 
and having more flexibility will allow for that.

1 Special thanks to Joseph Gaston for sharing his story. Thanks as well to Maria Smith of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland for connecting us.

2 On Judge Daniel C. Boyko’s Taking Senior Status: https://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/2019/05/federal-judge-in-cleveland-to-take-senior-status-next-year.html. Quotes from this article appear throughout this poem. 

3 For more information about the case, please read: https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCOURTS-ohnd-1_18-cv-02440 For more information about routine housing discrimination for those with criminal records, please read: http://www.thehousingcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/A-Never-Ending-Sentence-2020.pdf and https://www.cleveland.com/business/2020/01/a-criminal-record-is-a-never-ending-sentence-for-cuyahoga-county-housing-applicants-report-says.html. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Housing Act included disparate impact claims, which now makes it against the law to exclude an applicant simply on the basis of having a criminal record. Special thanks to Maria Smith for her insights into what is known as collateral sanctions—ongoing punishment for those who have served their time.

4 Eden, Inc., short for Emerald Development and Economic Network, Inc. (EDEN) is a 501 (c)(3) agency of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, dedicated to “providing housing solutions to people facing housing insecurities and homelessness.” https://www.edeninc.org/about/

5 On Judge Boyko’s naturalization ceremony: https://apnews.com/e8faf64afa8a42f7895b8ed42c24ddbb

6 For the full text of Dean Alfange’s “My Creed”: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/82410-my-creed-i-do-not-choose-to-be-a-common

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