Outside the entrance of the Cook County Jail
In 2016, an estimated 21,000 people returned to Chicago from prison. Parolees return to primarily four zip codes in the city, creating a distinct geography of reentry. Jeff Roberson/AP

The enduring stigma against ex-offenders makes providing them with subsidized housing a tough sell in a city where affordable housing is in short supply.

For the past several years, three residents of St. Andrew’s Court, a halfway house on Chicago’s west side, have waited patiently for a spot in Chicago’s public housing system. Bobby Flowers, Jimmy Edwards*, and John Stamps are among the nearly 282,000 Chicagoans who registered for affordable housing assistance when the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) waitlist last opened in November 2014. In past waitlist cycles, these men would not have had a shot at CHA housing because all three are ex-offenders who moved into St. Andrew’s upon their release from prison.

Since HUD adopted the “One Strike and You’re Out” Rule in 1996, people with criminal records have been effectively—if not always explicitly—banned from public housing. Since that time, incarceration rates have risen steadily as a result of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, and other tough-on-crime policies. Upon release, inmates typically move back to the same urban neighborhoods they came from but are barred from most forms of public assistance as well as employment and educational opportunities because of their record.

In 2011, things began to change when then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan sent a letter to all public housing authorities in the U.S., asking them to rethink their admissions criteria and to join HUD in “welcoming these deserving citizens back into our communities.” A sea change from past policies, Donovan’s invitation created an opening, and a challenge: Could public housing be a tool for prisoner reentry?

Nationally, public housing authorities have responded to Donovan’s call with a mix of strategies. In some cities, like New Orleans, the housing authority simply streamlined their admissions process, adjusting rules to allow ex-offenders to apply and then interviewing them for admission on a case-by-case basis. In a more cautious move, other cities, including Chicago, have created pilot programs—official policy experiments to, as the CHA puts it, “test the provision of stable housing against recidivism.”

Approved by the CHA Board of Commissioners in November 2014, CHA’s Reentry Pilot was carefully negotiated by a coalition of anti-homelessness advocates, reentry service providers, and CHA tenants and staff, with support from the Mayor’s Office. The Pilot has an initial cap of fifty participants, only certain categories of ex-offenders are eligible, and participants must agree to continuous monitoring and follow-up services. Participants can gain access to housing in one of two ways: by waiting for their own apartment or housing choice voucher to become available, or by moving in with a willing relative who already lives in CHA housing.

In Chicago, as elsewhere, the need for ex-offender housing is significant. In 2016, an estimated 21,000 people returned to Chicago from prison. Parolees return to primarily four zip codes in the city, creating a distinct geography of reentry. According to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 1,200 individuals are released directly from prison to homeless shelters in Chicago annually, while as many as 48 percent of individuals in Chicago emergency shelters report having a felony conviction.

And yet, scholarly studies reinforce the notion that access to safe and affordable housing helps prevent people with criminal records—people who have already been tried, convicted, and completed their sentence and parole—from reoffending. (Illinois’ recidivism rate hovers around 45 percent, so nearly half of all ex-offenders return to prison within three years.)

CHA’s Reentry Pilot aims to intervene in this cycle. Despite the fact that ex-offenders have been barred from public housing for decades, CHA CEO Eugene Jones, Jr. even calls the pilot a “no-brainer.” Today, 10 ex-offenders have been housed, and another 31 have been approved for the pilot. 

That might not sound like a lot after two and a half years. But the pilot’s impact transcends its small number of participants, and perhaps even housing policy. As Mary Howard, CHA’s Chief Resident Services Officer explains, “The importance of [the pilot] clearly has nothing to do with the housing authority, right? So, the main goal is that we have a really messed up criminal justice system, which has racial undergirds to it. We can say that someone has done their time, paid for their crime, but people continue to pay for it when they reintegrate into society. And so the goal is to try to eliminate some of those barriers.”

In this way, the pilot is an innovative attempt to overcome policy isolationism: the funneling of complex problems like urban crime into singular agencies, like departments of correction, which then fail to deal with those problems holistically, thus perpetuating cycles like recidivism.

But Chicago’s Reentry Pilot and others like it still face many challenges. The enduring stigma against ex-offenders makes providing them with subsidized housing a tough sell in a city where affordable housing is in short supply. Francine Washington, the president of CHA’s tenant organization, supports the program, but worries that ex-offenders will cause problems for other residents, and that CHA will leave tenants like herself to police them. Meanwhile, CHA staff and service providers agree: pilot participants are test cases and one person’s mistake could jeopardize the opportunity for everyone.

And then there is the fact that the CHA waitlists are so long to begin with, making pilot enrollment inevitably slow as approved candidates await a spot in public housing or a housing choice voucher. Plus, as Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Rachel Ramirez points out, there aren’t many people with criminal backgrounds on the waitlists to begin with. After decades of being turned away, many assume they’re ineligible. For policymakers looking to test housing provision against recidivism, there are no quick answers.

As experiments, pilot programs are also particularly vulnerable to shifting political tides. In Chicago, organizers report that obtaining Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support was crucial to winning the pilot. But there is a danger in relying on individual politicians for backing, particularly when programs like the Reentry Pilot are slow to start, and success can be difficult to measure.

This has never been more evident than in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Current HUD Secretary Ben Carson has yet to declare his own position on whether ex-offenders deserve a place in public housing, but he would do well to follow the evidence-based policymaking of his predecessors Shaun Donovan and Julian Castro—rather than defaulting to President Trump’s law-and-order political posturing—on this issue.

The stakes of this experiment are high. Back at St. Andrew’s, John Stamps knows this firsthand: in addition to being an ex-offender, he is also disabled, and has been homeless in the past. Originally from Englewood, Stamps is a soft-spoken, solemn, and imposing figure (the other residents at St. Andrew’s call him “Big John”). If he does not get CHA housing, he explains, returning to a life on the street may be his only option. For him, incarceration and homelessness are analogous experiences because, as he puts it, “The people on the street treat you just as [badly] as the people when you’re incarcerated. They look down on the homeless. And when you’re incarcerated, they look down on you too.”

This particular story ends well. Today, Bobby Flowers and Jimmy Edwards are among the people already housed through the CHA Reentry Pilot, while John Stamps is slated to move into an apartment this summer.

Stamps’ case manager, Douglas McKinney, an ex-offender himself, explains that for men like Flowers, Edwards, and Stamps, who face possible homelessness without this program, “Lives are at stake. And you don’t get to play with other people’s lives.”  

Editors note: CityLab has changed Jimmy Edwards’s last name because he could not be reached to confirm his comfort with sharing his pilot participation publicly.

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