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Several times a week a bus stopped at his shelter and unloaded men newly released from prison. Studies have estimated that 30% to 50% of big-city parolees are homeless. Sanders was surrounded by the very people his parole conditions forbid him to consort with. But parole also demands that he have an address, even if it's a shelter. One day, while Sanders was taking a shower, someone broke into his locker and started selling his underwear--brand new pairs he had got from the state when he left prison. His new washcloth also vanished. "You might think it's silly, but a little thing like that freaks you out. Why would they take my washcloth?" Twice a week the warrant squad came through, beaming flashlights at the bunks, demanding IDs. "That left my nerves sort of rattled," Sanders said. "Even if you're not doing nothing, you get nervous." The police often came by to recruit shelter residents to pose in lineups with suspects. The gig pays $10, but Sanders declined. Being that close to jail made him too anxious, he said.
By June, Sanders had a resume and a closetful of secondhand suits he got from a widowed neighbor of his mother's. He wore one every day. The women at his job-training program nicknamed him GQ. He grew a neat beard to look less threatening. He had interviews with every kind of business from messenger services to department stores including Macy's and K Mart but received not a single viable offer. The kinds of jobs he was most likely to get he couldn't take. Because of an old neck injury, he can't do heavy manual labor--a common problem among former inmates, who, because of their intimate history with violence and needles, tend to have far more medical problems than average Americans. He responded to an ad in the paper for a bathroom-attendant firm in Manhattan. Impressed by Sanders' demeanor, the interviewer said his record was no problem. But the jobs were off the books, a forbidden arrangement under his parole conditions. He paid for a security-guard training course and aced the test, only to find out later that security firms don't like to hire felons.
Since Sanders met Bill Clinton that day in Harlem, he had been back to the Housing Authority six times. He was convinced that the homeless shelter was, for him, an incubator for failure. He qualified for a $215-a-month rent check from the city's welfare agency--more than he would get in many other states--but he couldn't find a room in New York City for that rate. And, of course, he is forbidden under the terms of his parole to leave the city. So he kept going to the Housing Authority in search of cheap real estate, filling out forms as though they were lotto tickets. Each time he was told he needed more paperwork. In New York people with criminal records must finish parole and then wait up to six years before renting in public-housing projects. But Sanders was still eligible for low-income housing, at least in theory.