The First National Snapshot: Homelessness Among Formerly Incarcerated People
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The First National Snapshot: Homelessness Among Formerly Incarcerated People


USA – August 24, 2018

According to the 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, an estimated 550,000 people are still homeless on any given night in the United States, many of them are individuals with a history of contact with the criminal justice system . Stable housing is the foundation of successful reentry from prison. Unfortunately, many formerly incarcerated people struggle to find stable places to live. Discrimination by public housing authorities and private property owners, combined with affordable housing shortages, continues to drive the exclusion of formerly incarcerated people from the housing market.

The Prison Policy Initiative presented this August the results of their study for measuring homelessness and housing insecurity among formerly incarcerated people. The survey also used data from a little-known Bureau of Justice Statistics survey including 17,738 adult respondents who were previously incarcerated in state prisons and under parole supervision at the time of the survey.

In this report, The Prison Policy Initiative provides the first national snapshot of homelessness among the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States, finding that formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. Researchers broke down the data by race, gender, age and other demographics; they also show how many formerly incarcerated people are forced to live in places like hotels or motels, just one step from homelessness itself.

The study shows that rates of homelessness are especially high among specific demographics:

  • People who have been incarcerated more than once
  • People recently released from prison
  • People of color and women

Another key finding is that people experiencing cycles of incarceration and release — otherwise known as the “revolving door” of incarceration — are also more likely to be homeless. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 44% of those who were released from state prisons in 2005 were rearrested within one year; 68% within three years; and 83% in 9 years. High rates of rearrest and subsequent re–incarceration after release comprise what is frequently referred to as the “revolving door”.

People who have been to prison just once experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public. But people who have been incarcerated more than once have rates 13 times higher than the general public. In other words, people who have been incarcerated multiple times are twice as likely to be homeless as those who are returning from their first prison term, the study says.

Being homeless makes formerly incarcerated people more likely to be arrested and incarcerated again, thanks to policies that criminalize homelessness. As law enforcement agencies aggressively enforce “offenses” such as sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, and public urination — not to mention other low — level offenses that are more visible when committed in public — formerly incarcerated people are unnecessarily funneled back through the “revolving door,” said in the report.

The Prison Policy Initiative data supports the fact that people who spent two years or less in the community were more than twice as likely to be homeless as those who had been out of prison for four years or longer. This data corresponds with previous researches which have shown that formerly incarcerated people are most likely to be homeless in the period shortly after their release.

Within the broad category of homelessness, there are two distinct populations: people who are sheltered (in a homeless shelter) and those who are unsheltered (without a fixed residence). The study found that the sheltered and unsheltered formerly incarcerated populations have significant demographic differences.

Overall, formerly incarcerated women are more likely to be homeless than formerly incarcerated men. But among homeless formerly incarcerated people, men are less likely to be sheltered than women, whether for reasons of availability or personal choice.

The research has also found that formerly incarcerated Black men have much higher rates of unsheltered homelessness than white or Hispanic men. The data also suggests that formerly incarcerated Black and/or Hispanic women experience unsheltered homelessness at significantly higher rates than white women.

Black women experienced the highest rate of sheltered homelessness — nearly four times the rate of white men, and twice as high as the rate of Black men. The analysis shows that Black women face severe barriers to housing after release.

The high rates of homelessness among Black women correspond with the recent findings that unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated Black women were higher than any other demographic group.

Excluding formerly incarcerated people from safe and stable housing has devastating side effects: It can reduce access to healthcare services (including addiction and mental health treatment), make it harder to secure a job, and prevent formerly incarcerated people from accessing educational programs. Severe homelessness and housing insecurity destabilizes the entire reentry process.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s findings make it clear that the 600,000 people released from prisons each year face a housing crisis in urgent need of solutions. State and local reentry organizations must make housing a priority, and provide additional services thereafter — a strategy known as “Housing First.” If formerly incarcerated people are legally and financially excluded from safe, stable, and affordable housing, they cannot be expected to successfully reintegrate into their communities.

All people — and particularly those carrying the stigma of criminalization — need these solutions. State — and city–level policymakers have the power to solve this housing crisis using The Prison Policy Initiative’s recommendations. In such a wealthy country, it’s time we eliminate homelessness for good, underlined in the study.

The author of the research Lucius Couloute is a Policy Analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative and a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his dissertation examines both the structural and cultural dynamics of reentry systems.

The Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is known for its visual breakdown of mass incarceration in the U.S., as well as its data — rich analyses of how states vary in their use of punishment. The Prison Policy Initiative’s research is designed to reshape debates around mass incarceration by offering the “big picture” view of critical policy issues, such as probation and parole, women’s incarceration, and youth confinement.

The Prison Policy Initiative also works to shed light on the economic hardships faced by justice — involved people and their families, often exacerbated by correctional policies and practices. Past reports have shown that people in prison and people held pretrial in jail start out with lower incomes even before arrest, earn very low wages working in prison, and face unparalleled obstacles to finding work after they get out.

Author: USA Really