For Some Parolees Facing Homelessness, Communal Houses Fill the Gap

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Joseph Krauter sits on the front porch at Template House on March 12, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When he was preparing to be released from San Quentin State Prison, Joseph Krauter thought it would be a good idea to get paroled to San Francisco.

“It was kind of a lightweight fantasy. Like, I'm going to get out, I'm going to do this program, I'm going to get an apartment, I'm going to have a sweet job, and then everything is going to be great,” he said. “It was not.”

Krauter had served 15 years for second-degree murder. The day he got out, he got $450. That included the money he’d made working in the prison library, plus the $200 that the state has given to parolees since 1973.

Krauter had told the parole board that he wanted to go to San Francisco so he could access more services for his autism, and escape some of the demons he’d left back in Bakersfield.

He was set up at a halfway house, the Taylor Street Center run by the GEO Group in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. However, after six months there and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the director told me, ‘we need your bed space, you have to leave.’ ”

Krauter had made some money working a contract job, but he knew he didn’t have enough for an apartment. In classes at the transitional center, they’d told him he’d need to make at least $30 an hour to live comfortably in San Francisco, and he knew he wasn’t even close.

“I told the job counselor, 'I'm not ready to leave yet. I'm going to need the extension, at least for a few more months so I can save more money,' ” he said.

Krauter was scared he’d end up in a temporary group shelter, or have to live far away from the few programs and job prospects he’d found in the city. He didn’t know what to do.

Zarinah Agnew and Joseph Krauter talk in the backyard at Template House in the Lower Haight of San Francisco on March 12, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A Double Whammy

In California, many people getting out of prison have a hard time finding an affordable place to live.

"Best-case scenario, somebody has social and material support and so they can go live with parents or significant other or other family members," said Dallas Augustine, a research associate with AMEND at UCSF, a group that works to improve health in prisons. "But for those who don't have that type of material support, then they need to find housing."

And the double whammy of a lack of state support and decreasing housing supply has created a housing crisis for formerly incarcerated people.

In 2017, the state released about 37,000 people. In 2018, it released about 38,400. The state was ordered in 2009 to reduce overcrowding — an issue it's still dealing with today, so the number of releases is expected to stay high.

On the housing side, it is well known that California does not have enough affordable housing to meet the need, and landlords are often reluctant to rent to people with a criminal record. In addition, parolees often don't have the option to leave the state to find more affordable housing. For the duration of their parole, most people aren't allowed to leave the state where they served time.

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Many cities and counties are not making it any easier. In the Bay Area, some cities regulate where parolees can live. For example, in 2018, after considering banning parolees entirely, the East Bay city of Clayton banned two or more people on parole living together everywhere except for two areas in the city.

Because of all these factors, former inmates are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in most cases, parole agents aren’t required to make sure people are housed. However, they may voluntarily refer some people to long-term housing programs.

Last August, recognizing the stress that the COVID-19 pandemic was putting on the prison system, the state teamed up with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and other philanthropies to provide $30 million to reentry nonprofits. A spokesperson for CDCR said some of that money went toward providing temporary housing.

State lawmakers are looking for a way to address the problem. In January, Bay Area Democratic Assemblymembers David Chiu, Buffy Wicks and Ash Kalra introduced a bill to fund more reentry housing. They hope that as the state continues to reduce its prison population, those savings could be redirected to expand existing housing programs. The bill is expected to get a hearing this spring.

Augustine said in the meantime she’s seen more and more community groups stepping up to get people in stable housing. One is the Homecoming Project, which has been compared to an Airbnb for formerly incarcerated people.

More commonly, volunteer reentry groups find housing solutions for community members independently.

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A 'Life and Sanity Saver'

One of those groups is called Second Life, which is based in San Francisco. That’s where Joseph Krauter’s clinician sent him when he told her he was anxious about leaving his transitional center.

The Second Life Project was started by neuroscientist Zarinah Agnew. A few years ago, Agnew met some people who had recently been released from prison.

Zarinah Agnew reads in a room at Template House in the Lower Haight of San Francisco on March 12, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I asked them what they needed, and they were like, we just don't have anywhere to hang out. We don't have anywhere to be and we want to play [Dungeons and Dragons],” they said. “And so we started to play DnD and we started to have a potluck dinner together and friendships blossomed.”

Agnew saw that more than just a place to be, their friends needed a place to live.

Agnew had already been working to set up communal living spaces as an executive director of the nonprofit District Commons, and was in a good place to help the group rent and buy two houses in San Francisco. The houses are communal, fit in with conditions for people’s probation and parole, and rent is often cheaper than market rate.

Now, Krauter lives in one of the homes, called Sigil, with five other people, some of whom have been to prison and some who haven’t. He cooks lasagna and empanadas for the house, and calls the opportunity a “life and sanity saver.”

Zarinah Agnew turns a sign that indicates whether the cat that they share is home at Template House in San Francisco on March 12, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I may not get along with the entire community,” he said, “but the people I do get along with, I care about a whole bunch. They are fantastic, intelligent, fun-to-be-around people.”

Agnew lives at the other home, called Template House. It’s a colorful Victorian walk-up on Haight Street. Agnew said when people hear they live with formerly incarcerated people, they get uncomfortable.

“But when you come here, it's so cozy and beautiful,” they said. “Dinners are wonderful. Everyone takes care of each other. The wisdoms of this group of people are so extraordinary. I would trust this group of people to raise my child.”

Template House is a bit of a fixer-upper, but the residents are up for the project. One of the main helpers is resident Eldridge Cruse. Cruse was one of Template’s first residents. He was exonerated under changes to the felony murder rule in 2019, after almost three decades inside.

Bert Perla (L) and Eldridge Cruse (R) talk in the backyard at Template House in San Francisco on March 12, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Every evening, he tries to do some work in the garden. He envisions that in the next year the backyard will have a jacuzzi, a vegetable patch and a study area. It’ll be somewhere for the house cat, BARK, whose name stands for Bad Ass Revolutionary Kitty, to play.

“This is something that I've been looking for my whole life,” Cruse said. “We all look for someplace to belong, someplace where we’re wanted, someplace where we’re needed. And this right here, being in this community, this is what I found,”

Second Life only has places for a dozen people, but efforts are underway across the Bay Area to create similar communities. Reentry experts say the need is only going to get greater, and there should be a better system in place on a state and county level.

“If the state is going to incarcerate our community members, they also should continue to support them following release and to uphold the mission of rehabilitation, rather than pass that piece off and hope that it gets picked up,” Augustine said.

This story has been updated.

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