Robert “Smitty” Smith stands in front of his former home, a three quarters house on 1535 Vyse Avenue, in the Bronx. Smith was taken to this three quarters house directly after his release from prison two years ago and has been struggling to find independent housing ever since. Victoria Edwards/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Living on the Edges

By Victoria Edwards

Freedom was not the fairytale ending that Robert “Smitty” Smith had dreamed it would be while he was in Fishkill Correctional Facility. He would sit in his cell fantasizing about life on the outside: A clean, large red brick one-bedroom apartment where he could start his life over after 37 year behind bars. Almost two years out of prison, Smith still doesn’t have his own room, much less an apartment to call his own.

Whether the rain is streaming down in sheets or the sun is out, at 9 every morning Smith, and the other residents of 812 East 223rd St. in the Bronx, are locked out of the three-story pink-bricked three-quarters house they share – until 4 in the afternoon.

“Any kind of weather. It does not matter. It does not matter. You’re going somewhere,” said Smith, who is 67 and served a 37- year sentence for second-degree murder. “Once I get out, I gotta stay out,” he said, his face twisting into an ugly grimace.

Smith shares his room in the three-quarters house, an unregulated housing structure that rents out single beds, with seven other men, all of them in double bunk beds held together by rickety metal poles. He said if he’d known this would have been his reality coming out he would have just as well stayed in prison.

“It’s worse than being in prison – at least in prison you get respect,” said Smith. “If anything they are not going to try to double bunk you. Sleeping with someone else? No, that’s crazy. But out here they don’t care.”

Smith is not alone in struggling to find housing as a parolee. Ronald Day, an associate vice president of the Fortune Center’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit that works to help educate the public about prisons and criminal justice, said that New York legislatures have not prioritized housing resources for parolees.

“The criminal justice population has been left off the priority map for legislators. Neither the state or city has broadly established housing options for people coming home from prison,” said Day in an email.

There is no broad solution in place, said parolee and re-entry consultant Aaron Talley, but there are resources for parolees who fall into one of three categories: if they are HIV positive, if they have mental issues or if they struggle with addiction.

Talley described an almost Kafkaesque bureaucratic situation where there is no help for people who have been removed from society for decades, and who have done everything they had to do behind bars to earn their freedom only to find it squandered on the streets of New York City. They are too healthy, too well adjusted for help, and so they cram into a squalid three-quarters house or settle for no house at all.

Source: John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Once out of prison, getting a place to live in is one of the first challenges that parolees face. There is no system in place at the Division of Parole Office to help them find housing—the office can suggest agencies that can help the search. If a parolee does not have family to take him in or another place to live, they often end up at homeless shelters, live-in drug recovery programs or illegal boarding houses, which provide single beds to adults. These facilities are known as three-quarter houses.

This map made by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College has the most comprehensive data collected on three-quarter houses in New York City as of 2013. There are 317 known three-quarter houses in the city—mostly in northeast Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“We got people who don’t have mental health issues, who don’t have substance abuse issues and they go to work everyday and they’re having problems finding housing,” he said.

Smith said he’s gotten so desperate looking for housing, that he has tried to get a psychiatrist to diagnose him as mentally ill – with the understanding that if he is diagnosed with a mental illness he’ll qualify for more programs with a housing component than he does now.

“I tried it. I wrote the psychiatrist and you know what he told me? When I finally got in for the interview he said,” Mr. Smith, I’m sorry but your record tells me you’re too strong for this,” said Smith.

Parolee George Lyons, who is HIV positive, said he was able to secure housing, but agrees that it’s much harder for many parolees coming out of prison who don’t fall into one of these special categories.

“The projects, they don’t want people with criminal histories in the buildings,” said Lyons. “Myself, I am HIV positive; ironically it is easier for me to get housing than a person that is not sick.”

He said he was able to secure housing through HASA, an organization that works with parolees and others who are HIV positive. But he said that those parolees who don’t have access to those services are often dumped into a dangerous system that often seems rigged against parolees, where drugs and violence are rampant and stable, safe housing is in short supply.

“It’s often times worse than the prison they came from,” said Lyons about the shelter system. “That frustration, that builds up because they are in such a situation leads to other things. And then for the guy whose neighbor or roommate is in the shelter and decides to come in one night and smoke crack. What do you say to him? I’m trying to not get high anymore? What do you do? Eventually this guy will say let me get some.”

Smith echoed Lyons: Without housing it has been impossible to create roots. In his last three quarters house on 1535 Vyse Ave. in the Bronx, housing became so crowded with 25 other men sharing the quarters that he was forced to live on a thin, narrow cot in the middle of the kitchen.

“If I didn’t have this guy right here,” –Smith points to his friend Talley – “and a few friends, I would have done something to get back to prison. Because everyone is telling me sign right here and we’ll definitely gonna get you housing, and they’re lying to me,” he said. “I’m in between the edges.”