How 'felon' becomes a scarlet letter and prevents ex-convicts from building better lives

Christy Helphenstine spent nearly two years in prison after being convicted of illegally possessing methamphetamine ingredients. The offense netted her a 22-month sentence and a lifelong label: Felon.

Although Helphenstine has been out of prison, in job training and working on her sobriety for half a year at Brighton Recovery Center, she said Wednesday night she still felt marked by a scarlet letter -- one that prevented her from fully rejoining the world, no matter how hard she tried. 

"To get an apartment anywhere is slim to none," she said.

Helphenstine doesn't know where she will live when she leaves Brighton. She'll have food service certification but doesn't know where she will work. Even with her mother's help and dozens of calls to Boone County apartment complexes, no opportunities have emerged.

"When people can't find places to live, jobs, how can they go back in society?" she said. "Be able to buy a car, be able to start over, you just -- you can't. They set you up for failure."

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said Helphenstine's story didn't surprise him. Stigma shepherds many people with criminal records into shelters and lines at food pantries rather than self-supporting work or stable housing.

"It's already hard in our community for anybody to find housing," Spring said. "For people with felonies on their record, it's even harder. … There are some landlords that put blanket bans on people with felonies."

Spring said the search for housing can also be stymied by a lack of knowledge about support systems for people with criminal records. The Exit Program and Hamilton County Re-Entry Office can also help place people emerging from prison in situations stable enough that they will not have to reoffend to survive.

Helphenstine admitted she had made mistakes in her life, and some of those mistakes led her to the problems she faces now.

"I can't change that," she said. "What I can change is my future."

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