Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The barriers formerly incarcerated people face are creating a housing crisis—and no one is paying attention.
The punishment for a crime doesn’t necessarily end when the person has been released from prison.
Formerly incarcerated people face multiple barriers to securing housing (including public housing) and employment, which can lead to homelessness. And just by virtue of being homeless—by having to sleep on a bench or take shelter under a bridge—these people may then be targeted by the police. Thus starts an unrelenting cycle, through which people are tossed back and forth between jail and the street.
A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) presents some troubling numbers on this phenomenon. Using a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, for which the last available year of data comes from 2008, it found that among formerly incarcerated people, the rate of homelessness that year was 10 times that of the general public.
“The results from our study illustrate the connection between criminalization and an issue that we rarely discuss, but one that has profound societal costs: homelessness,” said Lucius Couloute, the author of the report, via email. “When formerly incarcerated people are 10 times as likely as the general public to face homelessness … it suggests the ultimate public policy failure. It suggests that prisons in the United States aren’t helping people reintegrate.”
Certain subsets of the formerly incarcerated people are more likely to be affected by homelessness, his analysis finds—women of color, those who’ve recently been released, and those who have had multiple spells in prison, for example. Here’s a breakdown of homelessness rates among formerly incarcerated people by subcategory:
Compared to people who have only been to prison just once, people who’ve had a long history of going in and out of jail are twice as likely to be homeless, PPI finds. This pattern is a result of local policies that “criminalize homelessness,” the author argues, by arresting homeless people for loitering or for “quality of life” crimes like sleeping in their cars, on the sidewalk, or a park bench.
In Los Angeles, one in six people arrested in 2016 were homeless. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that these arrests were largely for minor crimes, and had increased 31 percent since 2011. This week, the city’s police chief announced a move to clear longstanding warrants for homeless individuals who had not appeared in court, but said that the police would not change how they enforce laws.
There are other cities, however, that are trying to divert low-level offenders from the criminal justice system. Seattle, for example, launched such a program for drug offenders in 2011, and preliminary research shows that it has helped reduce recidivism. The initiative gives someone arrested for a drug offense the option to forego jail time, and opt in for an array of services offering housing, health, and employment assistance. Through this program, the city seeks to sever the pipeline to jail—and potentially, to the street—at its beginning.
According to the PPI report, individuals who have recently been released from prison experience particularly high rates of homelessness. Those who have been out for two years or less are twice as likely to be homeless as those whose reentry dates back four or more years. To combat this problem, the authors recommend that states and local governments develop a coordinated inter-agency approach—something like a “department of reentry”—that helps provides short-term and long-term support to the formerly incarcerated. Incorporating the “housing first” approach, which prioritizes getting a roof over the head of homeless people, can also help nip cases of homelessness in the bud. It has been proven effective and ends up saving cities money.
PPI’s data suggests that women of color experience the highest rates of homelessness—as seen within homeless shelters and on the streets. These patterns are reinforced by, among other things, the employment gaps across race and gender that already exist among formerly incarcerated individuals, per the report. To tackle employment gaps, authors suggest implementing “ban-the-box” policies that forbid employers from asking about criminal backgrounds, taking away an additional layer of discrimination against black and brown job applicants. More and more cities have been embracing these policies. The next step is to get landlord and housing authorities, many of which still do background checks, to do the same.
“Employers are already seeing the benefits of hiring people with criminal records,”Couloute said, “the housing world should take notice as well.”