How Parole Conditions Trapped Me in Homelessness
The severe restrictions I face while on supervision effectively serve as a ban on stable housing. The terms of this arrangement have left me technically homeless, forced to live in a motel.
Wes Vaughan May 09, 2023
The fourth chapter of “A Farewell to Arms” is my favorite part of the Hemingway classic. The book’s narrator, Lieutenant Henry, meets Catherine and begins one of modern literature’s most famous romances. The opening lines depict Lieutenant Henry, a displaced American in Italy fighting with the Italians in World War I, waking up to the familiar sound of artillery fire. He looks out the window, and remarks of the battery of guns in the distance, “It was a nuisance to have them there but it was a comfort that they were no bigger.”
Some will likely take umbrage at my use of a Hemingway quote—even more so considering it is a quote about warfare. But the line resonates with me from my position on post-prison supervision in Oregon. Navigating this system feels like a constant battle, folded into my daily waking life. There is a defined enemy, employed by the state, who has had almost unilateral authority over my existence since I left prison. My parole officer now controls my access to housing, employment, and my ability to be with loved ones.
The terms of this arrangement have left me homeless—at least technically. I currently live in a Super 8 motel. It is a nuisance, but also a comfort. I get the comfort of a mattress, a room of my own, and a hot shower. It’s better than the alternatives of living on the street, or being back in prison. But the nuisance lies in the arbitrary decision-making processes that serve to keep me trapped in this position.
I have an apartment, a car, and a job in the wings. My parole officer, however, has decided that I’m not allowed to live in my apartment, have access to my car, or work my job. In the face of these restrictions, I end up scraping up whatever money I can doing odd jobs, spending extraordinary amounts of time in coffee shops, and pilfering from my meager savings account to keep a roof over my head.
I’m told these constraints are necessary for public safety. In truth, it feels more like a punitive measure. The constant state of homelessness has become an extension of the punishment for my crime.
In that way, I fully accept that my choices have gotten me here. When I was 22 years old, I committed two felonies. I served over four years in prison and am now on the sex offender registry. I am ashamed of what I did, and live every day with the fact that I harmed another human being.
Considering my past, some of the restrictions I face may sound like general good practice for effective and responsible community supervision of the formerly incarcerated. But when one adult is given complete control over another, the results can border on the absurd.
I have gone to great lengths to find more stable housing. In the seven months after my release from prison in September 2020, I submitted more than a dozen potential addresses to my parole officer for approval. She denied all of them. I had already been approved for each of the units, successfully jumping through the hoops of application fees and criminal background checks. But I couldn’t clear the hurdles my parole officer enforced.
The first address I submitted was just under half a mile away from a daycare and a public fountain. Denied. Although my crime was not related to children, my parole officer decided I couldn’t live that close to places where kids might congregate. This struck me as strange, especially considering the motel I had been living in—an arrangement my officer approved—backed up into a public park.
Under state law, people on the sex offender registry who are under supervision cannot live “near” such youth-friendly locations. The statute doesn’t clearly define “near,” however, instead giving parole officers and other authorities the discretion to interpret the ambiguous term.
My parole officer raised similar issues with other properties I submitted. I won a small victory when she reluctantly agreed to set my prohibited zone to .7 miles. But it turns out that the vast majority of housing in an urban environment is still within .7 miles of such forbidden landmarks.
These rules effectively serve as a ban on stable housing. They have also produced some mind-bending contradictions. Some people on my parole officer’s caseload have been forced to live in tents in the biggest park in town, part of an enclave they’ve nicknamed “The Meadows.” If one of them were able to secure an apartment adjacent to that very same park, their application would likely be denied on the grounds that it was too near a park where children may congregate.
In my current Super 8 residence, I live just a few doors away from a family with two kids. But the official stance remains that I can’t be trusted to live in a private residence within 3696 feet from a public place where minors are likely to be present. There is a park directly across the street and a walking path behind the motel that leads directly to the waterfront park. However, since the motel is considered a temporary shelter it is not covered by these draconian public safety policies.
At one point amid all of these initial housing denials, I was sentenced to four days of work crew after calling another parole officer seeking an update on my applications. I had made the call out of desperation: My assigned officer wasn’t responding, and my girlfriend and I were going to lose our chance at the apartment if we didn’t get an answer.
The next time I saw my parole officer, she told me I had to stop submitting housing requests for two months. I was wasting her time by pushing to find permanent housing, apparently, and would be punished with four days of work crew for this, during which I spent my time picking up trash and cleaning public bridges and roadways. I didn’t fight it. If my parole officer was willing to revoke my ability to seek stable housing, I didn’t want to find out how else she might respond to perceived insubordination.
One of the other men on the work crew shared my parole officer. He’d spent the large part of the last 10 years living on the run in Montana, absconding from his post-prison supervision. He had a wife and kids and stable housing out there. Here in Oregon, he lived in a broken down old school bus. His mom had a house nearby, but he wasn’t approved to live there. I didn’t ask why. I assumed it had something to do with public safety.
The Montana man was popular with the officers who’d come chat with our work crew supervisor at job sites. When they recognized him, they’d ask him a version of the same question: Why did you run all those years? He’d explain that he couldn’t get his parole officer to approve any of the addresses or jobs he submitted. He needed money and shelter to survive, so he did what he had to do. That answer usually brought the conversation to a screeching halt.
I would soon find myself at a similar crossroads. Right as my parole officer temporarily banned me from submitting addresses, my girlfriend and I got approved for a gorgeous mid-century one-bedroom condo a few counties over. We moved in, but I was technically only allowed to reside there between the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. I couldn’t be trusted to stay overnight. For public safety.
Twice a week for four months straight, I would drive down the interstate to check in with my parole officer. Eventually, she got suspicious. A parole violation would have landed me back in jail, so I ran.
About 15 months later, I was arrested at a bar. I spent the next 152 days in jail as punishment for absconding and violating my parole. When I was released back under the supervision of my parole office, she told me I was banned from submitting stable housing options until I demonstrated six months of compliance.
All of that has brought me to where I am today—living at the Super 8, teetering on the edge of homelessness. The family that lives next to me seems to be in a similar situation, and they aren’t the only ones. At least two different school buses drop kids off here around 3 p.m. every weekday.
This is one of the cheapest motels in town, but it is by no means affordable. And being homeless in this way carries plenty of other expenses. I sometimes wonder what barriers these families faced that have led to them ending up here. I don’t dare ask them. It would be a violation of my supervision to talk to the kids.
All things considered, I am lucky. I have a little bit of money. A lot of people—I would say the majority of those on supervision—have no financial cushion. It doesn’t take much to push them onto the street. Or into the park or a broken down old school bus. Or waiting in line for a bed at the homeless shelter.
We are forced into this precarious position in the name of public safety. But keeping people in a perpetual state of instability only makes all of us less safe. There is a world in which supervisors and the supervised could engage in rational, solutions-based conversations to ensure that their basic needs are met. But the adversarial and oppressive nature of these relationships has largely eliminated that possibility.
Instead, every time I walk into my parole officer’s office, I am bombarded by quotes about accountability, truisms by Ronald Reagan, and grossly mistranslated Buddhist wisdoms bent to appeal to a more conservative slant. The misdirection and lack of candor that pervades the system might be the most frustrating part about community supervision. If this is about safety, who is actually being kept safe?
Each morning, I awake with my parole officer’s words ringing in my head like errant artillery fire. I am homeless, but it is for the good of society—or so I am told.
There is no good reason for things to be this bad, but at least they aren’t worse.
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