Connecting state and local government leaders
Incarceration and homelessness are inextricably linked, each cycling into the other. As the housing crisis drags on, state and local governments are looking to prevent former inmates from becoming homeless in the first place.
It’s difficult for low-income people to find an affordable place to live these days as the housing shortage nationwide pushes rents ever higher. But for those just released from prison or jail, the pickings are even slimmer. Typically barred from federally assisted housing and often lucky to have as much as a couple hundred dollars in their pocket, released inmates are at high risk of going from sleeping in a cell to sleeping on the street.
To break the incarceration-to-homelessness pipeline, one county in Ohio went on a listening tour of sorts, meeting with people with incarceration experience to better understand the needs of inmates leaving prison. The conversations led to Cuyahoga County’s $37 million housing justice plan, which it released earlier this month.
“Homelessness and incarceration are two sides of the same coin,” according to the housing justice plan. “[T]hose with criminal records are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness, and those who are homeless are more likely to be arrested.”
Cuyahoga County partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit addressing affordable housing challenges, to meet with housing experts and formerly incarcerated people to better understand the needs of inmates leaving prison. Those conversations identified accessible and affordable housing as one of the most important requirements to breaking the pipeline.
In addition to affordability, the county also learned that one of the greatest challenges in addressing the issue is helping communities get past their fears of people caught up in the criminal justice system.
“You have communities who feel like, ‘Hey, I don't want that type of housing, I don't want my next-door neighbor to be someone who's been impacted by the criminal justice system,’” said Simeon Best, director of the county’s Office of Reentry. “But I think what people fail to realize is that many people coming out have nonviolent offenses.”
The county’s housing justice plan outlines eight steps that can reduce the incarceration-to-homelessness pipeline, including developing 105 housing units that are available to individuals with criminal backgrounds, providing short-term funding to subsidize housing costs for those leaving prison and piloting a program to provide down-payment assistance or lease-to-own opportunities. The plan will be passed to the county’s newly established Department of Housing and Community Development and incorporated into a broader housing plan that is under development.
Best acknowledged that financing a $37 million initiative is no small feat, but incarceration is also expensive. And to keep people from returning to prison, “it’s very important that we have programs and services in place” to help them find a job and a place to live, he said.
It will take public, private and philanthropic funding to see the full plan brought to life. But, he added, the payoff would also be significant because its benefits extend beyond those touched by the criminal justice system.
So rather than spending more money on incarceration, “we can flip that and invest more … to really support individuals to make sure they have these basic essential needs like housing, employment and transportation. If we can help and put more funding in these avenues, then we can save money in the long run.”
Perhaps the most powerful step the government can take would be to pass fair chance housing legislation, Best said, which would prevent property owners from discriminating against previously incarcerated people looking to rent apartments or homes.
Very few municipalities have laws that prevent landlords from denying housing to people with criminal backgrounds, according to Carin Clary, director of homelessness and housing at the Harvard Government Performance Lab. Much of the funding for homeless services comes from the federal government, and in most cases individuals can only take advantage of those services if they’ve been continuously homeless for a full year after being released from prison, she explained.
Those challenges have an outsized impact on Black households and communities. Cuyahoga County has the highest incarceration rate of all of Ohio’s 88 counties, accounting for nearly 15% of all inmates in state prisons, with Black men in the county six times as likely to be jailed compared to white residents. It’s a trend reflected at the national scale: In the U.S., Black men are more than twice as likely to be jailed compared to their white counterparts and are more likely to experience homelessness.
But cities and states are increasingly scrutinizing the longstanding systems that make accessing housing difficult for formerly incarcerated people. And as conversations centered on racial equity continue to make their way into city halls, local governments are unpacking what fair housing truly looks like.
“People [are] trying to think about how to coordinate and work better not just [toward] community safety goals, not just as part of homeless goals, but under a larger goal around racial equity and undoing harmful systems,” Clary said.
As part of its inaugural Homelessness Prevention & Rehousing Accelerator, the Harvard Government Performance Lab is working with the Colorado Department of Corrections to connect inmates with housing services before they are released from prison. During the yearlong initiative, researchers will look at data across state and local agencies to better understand who is falling into homelessness upon release and how to improve reentry processes to help those people before it happens.
More than 100 jurisdictions applied to participate in the accelerator, and the lab picked Colorado’s project in part because many communities were homing in on the same idea: looking to reduce the number of people leaving prison and entering homelessness. Colorado is expanding its discharge planning and looking more deeply at how the Department of Corrections is designing services for inmates who have the highest risk of homelessness upon release. It’ll take breaking down data silos across government to achieve that, Clary said.
For example, a Harvard fellow will be looking at data from the Department of Corrections and comparing it to data from the state’s Homeless Management Information System to identify who is at the greatest risk of homelessness and who is likely to find housing in the private market. Those insights will help inform the development of a statewide housing plan and ensure resources are being used to the best advantage.
The initiative aims to address a common challenge Clary has heard echoed in communities nationwide: “We’re data rich but we’re capacity poor.”
“Even if they have the data, they often don't have … the capacity or the tools or the time to act upon it in a meaningful way that could really influence process and policy,” she said. Clary has experience working in local government and the nonprofit sector and noted that many agencies rely on their employees to focus on keeping the trains running, she said. “It's really hard for those same staff to find the time and the space to be thinking about innovation.”
By developing data-driven strategies for Colorado that can better connect people exiting incarceration to housing services Clary hopes other communities will draw on the initiative and consider how they can update their own processes.
“We're really trying to understand, how do these systems currently operate?” she said. “Where's there opportunity for improvement?"
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