Donna: From Prison To Homelessness…And Back To Prison

“Hey Pastor Chris.” she said, “do you have a hug for me?” It was a Sunday afternoon and church had just let out. My wife and I had stopped at the local convenience store to pick up some Gatorade for a homeless friend that was nursing the after-effects of binging meth. I had not seen Donna in almost two years and knew she had been in prison on drug-related charges in Georgia. She was one of the first homeless females that came to Impact! Ministries looking for help right after we launched in downtown Lakeland, Florida. She slept on our sanctuary floor for a few weeks, volunteered in our clothes bank and loved to sing with the worship songs each Sunday. One day she met a man on the streets who made promises of providing for her if she went with him to Atlanta. Though we all tried to persuade her not to go, one day we looked up and she had disappeared. Her family called several weeks later to let us know she had been arrested as a drug mule (running drugs from the supplier to the sellers) in the Macon, Georgia area. After two years behind bars she was now back in Lakeland – and apparently back on the streets.

Standing in front of the convenience store wearing high heels, a short skirt and heavy makeup I knew Donna was just getting off from “work”. Without hesitation I hugged her like a long-lost friend then called my wife over to join our conversation. We spent about 15 minutes talking to her that day. She told us stories about the things she had seen in Georgia (her very first time out of the state of Florida) and we invited her to come to Impact! for lunch that day. She declined, but said she would stop in later that week to see everyone. She told us she had a lead on a place to live and that her “job” was only temporary – it provided some money and a place to sleep that was off of the streets at night. We all prayed together and then Donna headed down the street looking for her next “customer”. Six weeks later she was arrested for prostitution and drugs. Some of the Impact! team went to her court date to provide support and hugged her one last time as she was led away in handcuffs for a 5-year prison sentence. We never saw Donna again.

The story of Donna is true, though I have changed her name out of respect for her and her family. Unfortunately it is a story that happens far too often with females that have been incarcerated. They go to prison because they have no options for self-sufficiency and end up back on the street homeless because they have nowhere to go once released. This past summer Impact! Ministries discovered that almost 80% of the homeless women we worked with had just been released from a state prison. With $100 on a prison-issued debit card and the clothes on their back donated from a local charity they were dropped off in the heart of downtown Lakeland with no support system, no job, no income and no place to stay. Many had never received any life skills training or job skills training while incarcerated – very few were even offered a chance to get a GED while in prison. In essence, it was set-up for total failure once they were released. As a result many ended up back in jail or prison before the summer was out. Most were picked up for drugs, prostitution or trespassing – all non-violent crimes, but enough to violate their parole.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2008 showed that people released from prison were 10 times more likely to end up homeless than that of the general public. The number was slightly higher for women.

– U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

The last time any organization did a study on the correlation between people being released from prison and people that are homeless was over a decade ago. A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2008 showed that people released from prison were 10 times more likely to end up homeless than that of the general public. The number was slightly higher for women. Last year the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative conducted another study – using the 2008 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey as a guide – to take a new look at those coming out of prison and those ending up homeless. They found that rates of homelessness are especially high among several specific demographics:

  • People who have been incarcerated more than once.
  • People recently released from prison.
  • People of color and women.

The entire report is disturbing and worth the time to read. It basically supports everything that Impact! Ministries saw this summer – the majority of women living in homelessness across America were once incarcerated. With more and more states turning their attention to punishment instead of rehabilitation for their inmates, very little skills training, job placement or educational opportunities are available to incarcerated women in the United States. They are released with little opportunity for a life that would prevent them from returning to prison. Statistics consistently show that women that have been incarcerated are the most vulnerable for becoming homeless or being sent back to prison.

For the past decade Denise (my wife) and I have been praying – and dreaming – about a ministry to incarcerated women that will help to provide a foundation for them to obtain a steady income, permanent housing and become self-sufficient upon their release. It will be a nationwide initiative combining education training before their parole and aftercare support through local churches once the women are out of prison. The idea is to eliminate the potential for homelessness for these women before it can occur and to provide a stable, supportive environment that will help them get on their feet for good. Though it will be called a different name, the initiative will function under the umbrella of Impact! Ministries. We plan to fund it by foundational grants for the actual ministry to women and private individual donations to cover salaries and operating expenses. We are in the final stages of submitting the legal documents for establishing the ministry and should be able to officially announce it next week.

In the meantime, Impact! Ministries continues to help women and families daily that are experiencing homelessness. We work hard to provide food, clothing, housing and support for those in need. Your continued prayers and financial support are greatly appreciate and go a long way to easing the pain of poverty for so many across Florida. For more information about how you can help, please click here.

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