Communities Can Better Prevent Homelessness through Housing- and Justice-System Partnerships
The pandemic’s devastating health and economic effects and the national reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism have highlighted pervasive inequities in communities across the US. A key issue lies directly at the intersection of those crises: homelessness.
The nearly 570,000 people experiencing homelessness (PDF) on any given night, especially the 210,000 people forced to live outside, face greater risks of exposure to the coronavirus. They are more likely to interact with the police and face citations, arrests, and incarceration. And, because of historical and systemic racism in housing, employment, and the criminal justice system, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are significantly overrepresented in the homeless population (PDF).
Fundamentally, homelessness is the result of a nationwide lack of affordable housing, stemming from a severe shortage of federal investment in the affordable housing and rental assistance necessary to ensure everyone has access to a home they can afford, according to Sarah Gillespie, research director for the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
But most decisions around responses to homelessness are made at the local level. Rather than targeting the underlying causes of homelessness through housing and services rooted in the evidence-based Housing First approach, many communities use law enforcement to criminalize homelessness. Police often force people living on the streets to move their camps or issue citations and arrests for minor “public nuisance” crimes, such as loitering or public urination.
This frequent police interaction can trap people in a homelessness-jail cycle, rotating in and out of jails and public safety net services such as shelters, emergency rooms, and detox facilities. Evidence shows the homelessness-jail cycle and punitive police responses do not help people get the services they need or find housing stability, and they do not improve public safety.
The justice and housing systems are deeply connected. Local housing and homelessness service providers’ decisions and actions affect the criminal justice system, and vice versa. When housing and justice agencies work together, they can better address homelessness and better serve their communities. Connecting people with the housing and services they need can reduce police interaction with people they frequently encounter on the streets and reduce jail stays (PDF), and helping formerly incarcerated people find stable housing can reduce homelessness.
Even though ending homelessness would benefit both the justice and housing systems, practitioners in the two spaces don’t often work together toward this common goal. “These two places speak very different languages,” said Evelyn McCoy, training and technical assistance manager in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Mutual understanding is a key first step to effective collaboration.”
Some local organizations and providers have forged innovative partnerships to help people experiencing homelessness and people involved in the justice system. If other places built similar housing-justice collaborations and joined forces to push for better funding and policy decisions, they could more effectively address homelessness and build a stronger community for everyone.
Bridging the divide to help people experiencing homelessness get the services they need
All components of the local criminal justice system—including police departments, parole and probation offices, jails and prisons, and the courts—can play a role in helping people experiencing homelessness connect with the services they need, rather than relying solely on punitive measures that trap people in the homelessness-jail cycle, according to Gillespie.
“For people cycling in and out of jail and other emergency services, no one has them, no one’s accountable for what’s going to happen next,” she said. “They don’t have that connection to service providers that people who are housed can have.”
In Long Beach, California, the city government created a reentry position within their health department to build a stronger connection between jails and homelessness services. The position was supported by a Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund grant through the Urban Institute and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Glareh Zanganeh served as the city’s first reentry services coordinator, helping people in local jails learn about the services available to them when they’re released, including shelters, lists for permanent supportive housing, and employment support. This connection can help ensure people experiencing homelessness are matched to the services best tailored to their specific needs.
“For people cycling in and out of jail and other emergency services, no one has them, no one’s accountable for what’s going to happen next.”
“That’s a really good window where you can educate them about available resources,” Zanganeh said. “If that doesn’t happen while they’re in there, it’s hard to reach them again. People miss their court dates, they fall through the gaps.”
During the pandemic, when it’s even more critical to keep people out of jails and other congregate settings that could expose them to the coronavirus, Long Beach has taken a step further. Now, when police officers interact with people living outside, they often call Zanganeh to coordinate those connections to services, rather than making arrests or issuing citations that could lead to jail time.
This type of bridge between housing providers and the justice system is also critical in addressing missed connections between the two sectors. In Long Beach, like in many cities, agencies operate on different schedules, which means people may not be able to access the services they need when they need them. People given court-ordered releases from jail typically don’t leave the courthouse until 5:00 p.m. After their paperwork is processed and they get their belongings, they’ll likely only be able to leave the jail after 7:00 p.m. But all the local shelters close their intake at 3:00 p.m.
Zanganeh, through the relationships she developed with one of the main local shelters, asked the shelter to extend their intake hours to later in the evening for situations when she called ahead to notify them that someone leaving jail needed a bed. “Those four hours mean the difference between someone having a place to go and going back to having nowhere to go,” she said.
Partnering to prevent homelessness among people leaving prison or jail
Beyond helping people currently experiencing homelessness, housing and justice agencies can also work together to prevent people from becoming homeless after they leave prison or jail. Incarceration, especially serving a long prison term, can destabilize every aspect of someone’s life, leaving them without a job, a home, or personal connections.
“To end homelessness, communities have to figure out how to reduce the number of people coming from the criminal justice system,” Gillespie said. “The justice system isn’t really set up to quantify and identify people experiencing homelessness in their population. Without something like a housing screen, they can’t always tell you who doesn’t have a place to stay once they get out.”
Lucius Couloute, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University, said formerly incarcerated people often don’t know about the resources available to them when they get out of prison. “Reentry should begin on the inside. Folks should be linked up with resources they need and have a plan in place,” he said. “When someone is released into your community, do you want that person to come out with nothing or to get the resources they need to flourish?”
Prisons and jails that have formalized reentry processes that include detailed housing plans and those that allow and encourage housing providers to come into their facilities (virtually or in person) for meetings are better able to prevent people from heading straight to homelessness or returning to homelessness, according to Regina Huerter, senior project associate at Policy Research Associates.
“Without that foundational support of housing, it’s practically impossible to do all the other things people need to get stabilized and develop self-sufficiency—employment, treatment, and compliance with their parole conditions.”
It’s also critical that people have long-term supports after they leave prison. Sponsors, a community-based nonprofit reentry services organization in Lane County, Oregon, provides people leaving prison who don’t have a home with housing (transitional and permanent supportive housing), employment services, cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, and mentoring services to give people the best opportunity to succeed.
“Without that foundational support of housing, it’s practically impossible to do all the other things people need to get stabilized and develop self-sufficiency—employment, treatment, and compliance with their parole conditions,” said Paul Solomon, executive director of Sponsors. “We’re serving folks who face higher risks of reengaging in the legal system. Our organization is a vital component of our public safety system.”
Sponsors has developed a strong partnership with the county parole and probation department. Parole officers are on site at Sponsors’ campuses to more directly help their clients, and staff from both Sponsors and the parole office participate in trainings together.
That partnership with the probation and parole office has been especially helpful in increasing public awareness about and openness to new housing developments Sponsors has built for people with criminal records, according to Solomon.
During the community engagement process for a recent permanent supportive housing project for people with conviction histories (including those with sex offenses), Sponsors invited a parole officer to community meetings. The officer dispelled myths around sex offenses and explained the extremely low community risk and recidivism rates for most sex offenders. After considerable neighborhood outreach and strong support from public safety and elected officials, Sponsors was able to allay most community members’ concerns and received community support for construction (PDF) of the new complex.
Striving to build cross-sector coalitions to push for better funding and policy decisions
Improving people’s connections to available housing services and building stronger reentry plans after incarceration are critical to reducing homelessness, but they don’t address the underlying problems of underinvestment, housing discrimination, and the lack of affordable housing that can lead to housing instability and homelessness. When housing and justice groups work together to pull their weight toward funding and policy decisions that help people find stability, they can address these challenges.
This means ensuring both housing and justice representatives are at the table for local funding decisions—including for city budgets, homelessness service coordination through Continuums of Care (CoCs), criminal justice system funding, and affordable housing and development plans.
“The justice system folks may not even know what the Continuum of Care is and how to advocate for carve-outs or preferences for their population, or just being included,” said Huerter of Policy Research Associates. “If CoCs reached out to probation, parole, community corrections, and jails and prisons, they could have a better understanding of what those populations’ needs are and how to include them.”
“We could build more housing and deal with our homeless populations, but if people can still be excluded from housing because of their involvement with the criminal legal system, we’ll still have high homeless rates.”
Solomon, the director of Sponsors, is the chair of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council and works to ensure the housing and services needs of formerly incarcerated people are prioritized in justice funding conversations. “It’s important to have balance when making funding decisions so we don’t get too focused on the law enforcement aspect of reentry or supervision and have a more diverse array of services,” he said.
Advocating for policies that remove barriers to housing access for formerly incarcerated people is also key to preventing homelessness. People leaving the justice system often struggle to find a home to rent because many landlords discriminate against people with criminal records.
As Roberta Meyers Douglas, director of state strategy and reentry at the Legal Action Center, explained, “We could build more housing and deal with our homeless populations, but if people can still be excluded from housing because of their involvement with the criminal legal system, we’ll still have high homeless rates.”
She hopes to see housing groups get more involved with efforts to push policymakers to ban housing discrimination based on criminal records, in the same way employment groups have joined justice reform advocates to call for ending job discrimination based on conviction histories.
Housing discrimination based on criminal records, similar to employment discrimination, is directly tied to racial discrimination, according to Couloute of Suffolk University. Because of disproportionate policing in Black and Latinx communities and racial disparities in convictions and sentencing, Black and Latinx people are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and, as a result, are more likely to face housing discrimination because of a criminal record.
That type of discrimination kept Kiana Calloway from being able to rent an apartment for 9 years after serving a 17-year prison sentence. Now a housing justice campaign organizer at VOTE (Voice of the Experienced) in New Orleans, Calloway is working to help other people avoid the same problems he faced. He is striving to build coalitions to encourage local policymakers to make people with conviction histories a class protected by fair housing laws, similar to protections based on race or religion.
“We can stand on the side of what we’ve already been doing, which hasn’t been working. Or we can stand on the side of making things better.”
Calloway said his inability to rent an apartment to get a fresh start meant the “black cloud” over his head in prison didn’t go away when he was released. “Not being able to come home and find stable housing is a block in your pursuit of happiness,” he said.
Fortunately, Calloway’s mom offered him a place to stay after he was released. For others leaving prison and jail without those connections, homelessness is often their only option. Calloway saw several of his friends struggle to find permanent housing after prison, including one friend experiencing homelessness who Calloway hasn’t been able to reach in months.
It’s people like this friend, and Calloway’s two young sons, who drive Calloway to push for change in his community’s housing and justice systems to ensure everyone has the opportunity to thrive. “We have to decide which side we’re going to stand on,” he said. “We can stand on the side of what we’ve already been doing, which hasn’t been working. Or we can stand on the side of making things better.”