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Taking Stock

Housing, Homelessness, and Prisoner Reentry

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Document date: March 08, 2004
Released online: March 08, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

This report, "Taking Stock: Housing, Homelessness, and Prisoner Reentry," examines how those who have spent time in prison or jail fare in securing safe and affordable housing following their release and discusses housing programming and practice designed to assist them. Every prisoner facing discharge from a correctional institution must answer this question: "Where will I sleep tonight?" For many returning prisoners, the family home provides an answer to that question. But reunions with families are not always possible—or are only temporary—sometimes due to the dictates of criminal justice or housing policies, or sometimes due to family dynamics. For those who cannot return to the homes of families or friends, the question of housing becomes considerably more complex. For some, the final answer to the question "Where will I sleep tonight?" is a homeless shelter or the street. Many are finding that the difficulties in securing affordable and appropriate housing complicate the reentry process, further reducing already limited chances for successful community reintegration.

The report is the culmination and synthesis of three tasks designed to inform the state of knowledge around housing, homelessness, and prisoner reentry: (1) a descriptive report on the barriers and challenges facing returning prisoners, as well as potential opportunities for serving or supporting the housing-related needs of returning prisoners, (2) a scan of promising housing and other housing-related service programs for returning prisoners and ex-offenders, and (3) a roundtable discussion by experts in the field held in Washington, D.C., on October 30, 2003. The goal of the roundtable was to bring together prominent practitioners, researchers, and community leaders to identify the most pressing housing issues and the most promising strategies for resolving these issues. The report and scan of practice were developed to serve as background materials to help frame the discussion, already underway in many communities, about the extent of the housing challenges faced by returning prisoners. The roundtable participants were provided a copy of the draft report and scan of practice. After the roundtable, the report was revised to include a synthesis of the roundtable discussion.

Our ultimate aim is to sharpen the nation's thinking on the issue of housing and prisoner reintegration, and to foster policy innovations that will improve outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. In this executive summary, we provide brief background information on the issues surrounding housing and prisoner reentry to lay the foundation for a presentation of the highlights from the day-long roundtable discussion.


Reentry—The Issue

Over the past generation, the United States has placed greater reliance on incarceration as a response to crime. As a consequence, far more people in our country have spent time behind bars, some in prisons, and some in jails. This year, more than 600,000 prisoners will be released from state and federal prisons across the country, more than four times as many as were released in 1980. An estimated 10 million people will be released from local jails (Beck, Karberg, and Harrison 2002). These record levels of movement in and out of the country's prisons and jails have far-reaching consequences for the individual prisoners themselves, their families, and the communities to which they return (Petersilia 2003; Travis, Solomon, and Waul 2001).

During the past 20 years, the United States experienced a massive increase in incarceration. The total prison population increased from 330,000 in 1980 to nearly 1.4 million in 1999 (Lynch and Sabol 2001). At the end of 2002, 1 in every 1,656 women and 1 in every 110 men were incarcerated in a state or federal prison (Harrison and Beck 2002). The demographic characteristics of individuals being released mirrors the characteristics of those incarcerated. Most returning prisoners are male (88 percent). (See table 1.) The median age is 34 and the median education level is 11th grade (Bonczar and Glaze 1999). In 1998, more than half of returning prisoners were white (55 percent) and 44 percent were African American. Twenty-one percent of parolees were Hispanic (and may be of any race). Since 1990, drug offenders have comprised an increasing percentage of prison releases. In 1999, 33 percent of state prison releases were drug offenders, 25 percent were violent offenders, and 31 percent were property offenders (figure 1).

Table 1 and Figure 1

Of prisoners released in 1998, five states (California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Texas) accounted for just under half of all offenders released (Lynch and Sabol 2001). Furthermore, within states, a large proportion of released prisoners return to a small number of disadvantaged communities. The Urban Institute's Returning Home study has examined concentrations of returning prisoners in three states. In Maryland, 59 percent of state prison releasees returned to Baltimore City. Within Baltimore, 30 percent returned to just six of Baltimore's 55 communities. In Illinois, 51 percent of state prisoners returned to Chicago. Within Chicago, 34 percent returned to just six of Chicago's 77 communities (LaVigne and Kachnowski 2003; LaVigne et al. 2003). In Ohio, 22 percent returned to Cuyahoga County. Of those, 79 percent returned to Cleveland and 28 percent of those returned to five communities (LaVigne and Thomson 2003). Consequently, the flow of prison releasees compounds challenges to communities, posing severe social and economic consequences for neighborhoods and families (Hagan and Coleman 2001; Hagan and Dinovitzer 2001).

Generally, prisoners released today have been in prisons for longer periods of time, and fewer of them have participated in education and drug treatment programs compared to those released in the 1990s (Hagan and Coleman 2001; Lynch and Sabol 2001). Many will return to prison within three years of release. The largest recidivism study ever conducted—undertaken by the Bureau of Justice Statistics—examined 38,000 (projected to represent 270,000) prisoners released in 1994 from prisons in 15 states, and found that 67.5 percent of those released were rearrested for a new crime (either a felony or a serious misdemeanor) within three years following their release (Langan and Levin 2002). The study also found that most recidivism (two-thirds of all events) occurs within the first year after release. When these numbers are compared to a previous recidivism study of prison releasees in 1983 (Beck and Shipley 1989), the trends are disturbing. Today, the overall rearrest rate is five percent higher and a higher percentage of releasees were rearrested in the first six months after release.

Public health issues—the large number of returning prisoners with HIV and AIDS infection and related illnesses—complicate the housing needs for many returning prisoners (GAINS Center 1999; Roberts et al. 2002). Ex-prisoners also have high rates of substance abuse and mental illness that may reduce chances for finding housing (Beck and Maruschak 2001). In addition, women face unique barriers in securing safe and affordable housing when they return home from prison or jails (Ritchie 2000). Women may have special service needs and often must find a home not only for themselves, but also for their children.

Reentry and Homelessness

According to a number of different studies that examine the demographics of prisoners, the population coming in and out of America's prisons has high rates of homelessness:

  • A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study of state prisoners (Langan and Levin 2002) found that among those state prisoners expected to be released to the community in year-end 1999, 12 percent reported being homeless at the time of their arrest.
  • Another BJS study found that in 1998, 9 percent of state prison inmates reported living on the street or in a shelter in the 12 months prior to arrest (Ditton 1999). Looking only at inmates who were mentally ill, the level of homelessness was even higher—20 percent.
  • A California study reported that in 1997, 10 percent of the state's parolees were homeless. In urban areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, an estimated 30–50 percent of all parolees were homeless (California Department of Corrections 1997).
  • A 1999 Urban Institute three-site study of 400 returning prisoners with histories of drug abuse found that 32 percent had been homeless for a month or more at least once in their lifetimes. Eighteen percent reported they were homeless for at least a month in the year after they were released from prison (Rossman et al. 1999).

New attempts at matching parole client names and identification numbers to homeless shelter rolls also show large numbers of parolees relying on shelter systems—though the numbers may underestimate the true extent of the overlap due to missing information. For example, New York reported that at any one time about 800 parolees are in the New York City shelter system (Riley 2003). This represents roughly 3 percent of the New York City parole caseload. The findings from a recent study examining the intersection of corrections services and shelter use suggest that prisoners that were homeless at some time in their life were more likely to be homeless after a state prison incarceration (Metraux and Culhane 2004). Specifically, those released prisoners with a history of shelter use were almost five times as likely to have a post-release shelter stay. The same study also found that of New York State prison releases entering homeless shelters sometime after release, 54 percent did so within the first 30 days.

In short, about a tenth of the population coming into prisons have recently been homeless, and at least the same percent of those who leave prisons end up homeless, for at least a while. And those with histories of mental illness and drug abuse are even more likely to be homeless.

Studies indicate that parole violation and rearrest may be more likely for those prisoners with no place to go upon release. An exploratory study by the Vera Institute of Justice following 49 individuals released from New York State prisons and city jails found that those individuals living in temporary shelters upon release had more difficulty resisting drugs and finding jobs. Furthermore, 38 percent of the people who reported during the study's pre-release interviews that they were going to live in a shelter absconded from parole supervision, compared to only 5 percent of the individuals who reported they were not going to a shelter (Nelson, Deess, and Allen 1999).

Studies of homeless individuals and families also suggest a relationship between homelessness and time spent in prison or jail. A synthesis of 60 research studies on homelessness conducted in the 1980s found that on average 18 percent of the population of homeless persons had served time in prison after being convicted of a felony, and about one-third of the population of homeless persons had been jailed for misdemeanor charges (Shlay and Rossi 1992). According to the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), 49 percent of homeless adults reportedly spent five or more days in a city or county jail, 4 percent had spent time in a military lock-up, and 18 percent had been incarcerated in a state or federal prison (Burt et al. 1999). A 1997 "snapshot" survey of the inhabitants of Boston homeless shelters found that 57 percent of the people surveyed had lived in at least one institutional setting within the prior year—including hospitals, mental health facilities, jails, detoxification centers, or halfway houses—and 22 percent had recently lived in a criminal justice institution (Friedman et al. 1997). In a survey of city officials in 36 cities regarding hunger and homelessness, prison release was identified by six cities (Cleveland, Denver, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.) as a major influence on homelessness (U.S Conference of Mayors 2002).

Current Housing Options for Returning Prisoners and Ex-Offenders

For a majority of returning prisoners, their first home post-release is with a family member, a close friend, or a significant other. The Vera Institute of Justice study found that of the 49 offenders followed after their release from prison, 40 were living with a relative, or with their spouse or partner, in the month right after they were released (Nelson et al. 1999). In the Urban Institute's Returning Home study in Maryland, 153 respondents were interviewed about two months after their release. When asked where they went after getting out, nearly half (49 percent) said they slept at a family member's home their first night. Another 10 percent slept at a friend's house the first night out of prison. At the time of the interview (two months out) the overwhelming majority (80 percent) were living with a family member.

For some returning prisoners, residing in the home of a family member, friend, or significant other is not an option. This may be the result of family conflict, the reluctance of family members to welcome a violent individual back into their lives, or the lack of an immediate family. In some cases there are additional legal restrictions involved. Conditions of parole may prohibit returning prisoners from residing with a family member or close friend if that individual has a criminal history. According to a 1988 survey of conditions placed on former prisoners under parole supervision, 31 of the 51 responding parole agencies reported that they prohibited parolees from associating with anyone who had a criminal record (Rhine et al. 1991).

The process of securing housing may be further complicated by the returning prisoner's ineligibility for food stamps, veterans benefits, and benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Anyone with a drug conviction is barred for life from obtaining food stamps and TANF benefits, unless a state modifies or eliminates this prohibition (Koyanagi 2002). Other guidelines restrict the use of TANF funds for housing services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers any TANF-funded housing subsidy that is not short term as "assistance," even if families are working and not receiving TANF cash benefits. Therefore, a TANF-funded housing subsidy provided for more than four months counts against the family's federal lifetime benefit limit (Sard and Waller 2002). Returning prisoners not able to access TANF may be able to obtain other benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). However, when an individual is incarcerated for more than a month, these benefits are suspended. Upon release from prison, it may take weeks to reinstate these benefits.

For those returning prisoners who do not live with loved ones or friends upon release, the housing options include (1) community-based correctional housing facilities; (2) transitional (service-enriched) housing (non-corrections based and non-HUD funded); (3) federally subsidized and administered housing; (4) homeless assistance supportive housing, other service-enhanced housing, and special needs housing supported through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and (5) the private market. These options are discussed in greater detail below.

Community-Based Correctional Facilities

Halfway houses or community reentry centers are residential programs designed to transition individuals returning to their communities from prison, representing a "halfway" step between prison and the community. Halfway houses are used by both the federal and state correctional systems. However, halfway house use is more prevalent within the federal system. In 2000, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contracted for 282 halfway houses that provided 6,911 beds for over 18,000 inmates (U.S. General Accounting Office 2001). Generally, federal inmates enter halfway houses 11 to 13 months before their probable release date. The average length of stay is roughly 104 days. Community organizations such as Dismas Charities, Inc., and the Salvation Army operate a number of these residential facilities across the country. In contrast to the federal system, across the state systems, there were only 55 halfway houses operated by 10 state agencies in 1999. It is estimated that less than .5 percent of all inmates released in 1999 were released through halfway houses (American Correctional Association 2000).

A number of barriers stand in the way of expanded use of halfway houses for returning prisoners. First, there has been little research on their effectiveness or cost effectiveness. The few studies we found are nonexperimental studies that use no comparison group but instead attempt to isolate variables associated with successful halfway house program completion. Second, the siting of these facilities often provokes community opposition. This opposition, known as NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), can be very powerful. Third, the use of this form of facility may be politically unpopular or deemed contrary to government policy. For example, in December 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion that reduces the time spent in halfway houses for federal prisoners nearing the end of their sentence. Finally, these facilities can be very expensive and may be difficult to justify in times of fiscal constraints.

Transitional (Service-Enriched) Housing (Non-Corrections Based and Non-HUD Funded)

In addition to halfway houses run by corrections agencies, there is a wide variety of housing programs that are funded by private foundations, charitable giving, and a mix of grants or subsidies from the state and federal government. These residential facilities, most of which have some form of treatment focus, are generally run by nonprofit or faith-based organizations and do not have large contracts with correctional agencies. Residents in the facilities often have to pay a fee to live there. The fee is usually based on a sliding scale of ability to pay and may increase as the resident progresses through program phases.

The Ridge House in Reno, Nevada, is one example of a nonprofit organization that provides residential and case management services to men and women released from prison. Other examples include Woman at the Well House Ministries (WWHM) in San Antonio, Texas, and Aletheia House in Birmingham, Alabama. These programs have one or more facilities that specially target returning prisoners for their available beds.

Not all communities can successfully develop and implement these types of housing programs. These programs often result from community coalitions or partnerships where government and community agencies have long histories of working together. They are likely to crop up in communities that are ready to tackle the issue of crime and reentry, or in communities that have strong, well-funded community-based or faith based organizations. Like corrections-run halfway houses, these programs must overcome NIMBY, but may have an easier time because they are run by nonprofits—and hence, may be viewed by residents as having the interests of the community at heart.

In addition, the availability of funding for these programs is a barrier for many communities. Often, creativity and dedication are needed to piece together a variety of funding sources to sustain a residential program. Community organizations and partnerships that implement these programs must be committed to the mission of serving returning prisoners and seek to institutionalize these programs over time.

Federally Subsidized and Administered Housing

Federally subsidized and administered housing is another option for very low income individuals and families. There are three main federally subsidized housing programs offered by HUD: (a) the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly called Section 8), (b) the Federal Public Housing Program, and (c) a variety of projects and programs that can be categorized as privately owned federally subsidized stock. Combined, these three programs serve about one-third of all eligible renter households with incomes up to 80 percent of the area median.

In addition to the federally subsidized housing for the very poor, there are federally administered programs that assist in the provision and development of affordable housing. Two of these programs include the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC)1 program of 1988 and the HOME program of 1990 (O'Reagan and Quigly 2000).2

The barriers for returning prisoners to federally subsidized and administered housing generally fall into two categories: (1) scarcity of housing stock, and (2) formal and informal regulations and prejudices that restrict tenancy.

The scarcity of federally subsidized housing creates barriers for all individuals seeking affordable housing. It has been estimated that only one-third of all individuals and families eligible for subsidized housing actually gain access to federally subsidized housing. During the last decade the number of available public housing units has decreased. The HOPE VI public housing redevelopment program has contributed to the reduction in the nation's supply of public housing. Estimates suggest that tens of thousands of families nationally have been displaced (National Housing Law Project et al. 2002) by HOPE VI activities.

Some community leaders have suggested that given an individual's criminal history, it may not be feasible to expect that returning prisoners access this housing resource when thousands of law-abiding individuals are awaiting housing. In addition, some communities have voiced concerns about concentrating individuals with criminal histories into disadvantaged communities.

With regard to regulations, current HUD policy provides public housing authorities (PHAs) power to deny admission or to terminate the lease of individuals with a history of use or abuse of drugs or alcohol, or of criminal behavior. The PHA property manager has discretion to determine admission policies. The same One Strike policy, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker [122 S. Ct. 1230 2002]), encourages housing authorities to include in leases a provision that a tenant in public housing can be evicted if the tenant, any member of the tenant's household, or any guest engages in drug-related criminal activity on or off the premises. A 1997 HUD survey shows that housing authorities are using the regulations to deny admission or evict individuals with criminal histories from public housing. That year, the One Strike regulation was used to deny 19,405 individuals admission, out of a total 45,079 individuals denied admission for various reasons.

Looking at individual cities, The View From the Ground, an occasional online publication produced by representatives of the Stateway Gardens public housing development on Chicago's South Side, reports that Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) statistics show that of One-Strike cases initiated between August, 2000, and April, 2002, 717 One-Strike cases involving families were concluded. The dispositions of these cases were as follows: 26 percent of all judgments were in favor of the CHA; 37 percent ended in "agreed orders" (negotiated settlements where offending party is taken off lease, barred from unit, or put on probation); and 20 percent resulted in move-outs (tenants move out on their own after receiving and eviction notice). Only 1 percent of the judgments were for the tenant.3

Homeless Assistance Supportive Housing, Other Service-Enhanced Housing, and Special Needs Housing Supported through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Given the scarcity of corrections-run transitional facilities and the complex needs of many returning prisoners, many returning prisoners end up entering the web of housing and homeless assistance and special needs programming supported through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Cho, Ball, and Ladov 2002). Returning prisoners with nowhere to go upon release often end up in shelters, but shelters are simply short-term facilities that are most often not tasked with providing services to assist the search for permanent housing.

The HUD-funded network of homeless assistance housing resources includes supportive housing and service-enhanced housing. Supportive housing is permanent housing for lease holding tenants, in which social service provision and funding is an integral component of the housing operation. Service-enhanced housing includes two categories: transitional and phased-permanent housing. Transitional housing is provided for a fixed length of stay and offers a variety of support services to assist clients in achieving self-sufficiency. In most cases, clients do not have occupancy agreements or leases. Phased-permanent housing refers to a new housing model where residents have month-to-month occupancy agreements (not leases), and therefore have some rights of tenancy. Phased-permanent is also intended to be short term, with the goal of assisting residents to move on to more permanent forms of housing.

Most often, regardless of program length or permanency, supportive or service-enhanced housing programs offer a range of services: family counseling, case management, medical services, substance abuse counseling, socialization skills groups, anger management, vocational training, and assistance with obtaining vital documents such as Social Security cards and birth certificates. Though some jurisdictions have used these programs specifically to target returning prisoners or ex-offenders, the majority serve these individuals simply because they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The first federal legislation to provide a range of supportive housing options and service-enhanced housing was the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. The Act resulted in the creation of three programs: the Supportive Housing Program (SHP), the Shelter Plus Care Program (S+C), and the Section 8 Mod Rehab (dedicated to moderate rehab projects)—each intended to serve different needs. Unfortunately, returning prisoners cannot utilize these McKinney programs as their first housing option after release. According to federal policy, individuals must be homeless for a period of time before they are eligible for McKinney programs.

However, HIV/AIDS housing funding, because it utilizes different eligibility requirements, has been used successfully for projects that include ex-offenders. Federal Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) funding has been particularly useful in this regard. Across the country, providers have successfully used HOPWA funds to develop supportive housing for formerly incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS (Corporation for Supportive Housing 2002; Hals 2003).

Funding for McKinney programs has suffered setbacks in recent years. Although funding was authorized, the actual expenditures were not sufficient to address the widespread need across the country. Congress authorized just over $1 billion in expenditures for McKinney Act programs for 1987 and 1988; however, only $712 million was appropriated for those years.

For several years, homeless advocates have been asking HUD for clarification as to whether persons leaving correctional institutions are considered homeless. In February 2000, the definition was changed to include as "homeless" someone who was in jail or prison for over 30 days, and who had no subsequent residence identified, or no support networks outside of prison, or was evicted from a prior residence. Some organizations have used Shelter Plus Care because HUD has not made a clear-cut statement regarding the eligibility of ex-offenders.

As with correctional halfway houses the NIMBY phenomenon may create hurdles for community groups seeking to develop group homes or supportive housing to house returning prisoners. Surveys show that community opposition is greatest when facilities are developed for substance abusers (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 1997). Research also shows that small facilities can be successful in overcoming community opposition (ibid).

The Private Market

In addition to the housing options described above, returning prisoners can seek housing in the private market. The most likely option is the rental market. Some inmates may have owned housing before their incarceration and, hence, would return to their homes after release. But given the likelihood that mortgage payments cannot be made while incarcerated, it is improbable that released prisoners who owned homes prior to imprisonment will be able to return to these homes. Returning prisoners must overcome many barriers to access housing in the private rental market. These barriers include affordability, improper personal documentation, stigma of criminal history, and associated community objection due to public safety issues. Affordability is the most significant barrier. Most prisoners leave prison without enough money for a security deposit on an apartment. Most states provide a token amount of "gate money," ranging from $25 to $200, hardly enough for a deposit in most cases. One-third of all states provide no gate money at all (Petersilia 2003). In addition, as stated earlier, without some type of income or income support, returning prisoners will be unable to access private market housing.


On October 30, 2003, the Urban Institute convened a national forum of experts, sponsored by the Fannie Mae Foundation, to chart a course for housing organizations and criminal justice organizations to work together to improve housing outcomes for individuals leaving prison, their families, and the communities to which they return. The Forum participants represented housing organizations, housing intermediaries, transitional and permanent housing providers, criminal justice practitioners, researchers, public housing managers, community leaders, and former prisoners. Prior to the Forum, the participants had the opportunity to read the draft literature review and the draft scan of innovative practice so that the discussion was informed by the most comprehensive information available. Jeremy Travis, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, served as facilitator of the roundtable discussion. In addition to the participants at the table, 75 key individuals from federal and local government agencies, other foundations, research agencies, advocacy organizations, and national associations attended the Forum as observers.

The key questions the roundtable sought to uncover included:

  1. Within the many issues related to the housing dimensions of the reentry experience, which are the most pressing?
  2. Where do the most promising opportunities lie for addressing the housing issues confronting returning prisoners?
  3. What are the steps needed to make these opportunities become well-established realities in policy and practice?

The Pressing Priorities

The morning began with a discussion of the housing challenges and barriers facing returning prisoners with the goal of explicating the most pressing priorities for policy and practice. One panelist suggested that the priorities be organized into "hard targets" versus "soft targets." Hard targets are those issues, policies, and practices that would be the most difficult to change. Soft targets are those that might be changed with much less effort. For the most part, throughout the morning, the other panelists couched their discussion using these phrases, with equal time spent discussing both the hard and soft targets. Although there was no universal agreement whether the stated priorities fell into the hard category or soft category, a general consensus emerged. Below we lay out the priorities first by hard target, followed by soft target priorities.

The Hard Target Priorities
Motivate the correctional system to be a force in creating the momentum for positive change

Panelists agreed that the criminal justice system could be a large force in creating the momentum for change. Many stated that it is unrealistic to expect housing systems to carry the burden for supporting improved housing options for returning prisoners. Some saw corrections as the agency with the most power to leverage or effect change. Panelists suggested that analyses of costs and benefits of correctional housing programs could demonstrate to corrections systems that coordinated reentry programs would be of great benefit across systems (i.e., corrections, community corrections, and homeless services system) and the community.

Change could also occur with a reevaluation of parole restrictions and requirements that make it difficult for parolees to secure housing with their families or near their jobs. Some parole restrictions have unintended consequences where the consequences may outweigh the intended benefits. For example, restrictions that stipulate a returning prisoner not associate with criminal peers may result in individuals living in halfway houses far from family and job opportunities.

Establish alternatives to shelters for returning prisoners

Similar to motivating the correctional system to seek change, three practitioner panelists set the stage early for the discussion by stressing the need for establishing alternatives to shelters for returning prisoners. The panelists felt that there may be an overreliance on the shelter system by criminal justice agencies. The corollary observation was that corrections and parole agencies know little about housing programs that could be available to returning prisoners. Corrections and other criminal justice officials should collaborate with local shelter boards to expand the understanding of the housing services and options available, and develop procedures stipulating how the systems can work together.

Other panelists emphasized that the need for effective pre-release planning that would identify housing needs and match services to fit needs. Many panelists also mentioned the importance of in-prison programming aimed at rehabilitation. The most-voiced priorities related to pre-release planning included:

  • Begin to prepare for reentry at the time of sentencing. Reentry planning that begins at the time of sentencing should support transitional and post-release programming. Reentry planning should include identification and assessment of an individual's housing needs. In addition, procedures should include full support (e.g., an advocate available around the clock) for the 24-hour period following release.
  • Establish and utilize pre-release facilities that would transfer soon-to-be-released inmates to facilities near their intended homes. Inmates could begin to search for a job, as well as reconnect with family and loves ones, and connect with any needed community supports. A number of panelists reiterated the importance of reconnecting returning prisoners to their family and children.
  • Reestablish SSI and Medicaid eligibility, as well as identification paperwork, before people leave prison/jail.
  • Develop a "kinship" housing subsidy where the prison releasee would be provided with a subsidy that is given to his or her family to pay for subsidized housing. This would take corrections monies and apply it directly to housing upon release. This could potentially reduce the burden for families that intend to help support their loved one upon release.

Encourage community understanding and support for returning prisoners

Panelists thought that encouraging community understanding and support for returning prisoners should be a priority. Some identified this as a hard target, while others thought that more community exposure to the issue would generate more support. Panelists suggested that the "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) opposition could be offset by transmitting information to the public and by showing the community that ex-offenders are making strong contributions to society. Suggestions included:

  • Educate the community about the needs of returning prisoners and demonstrate that services are available and constructive in supporting ex-offenders.
  • Engage the community from the beginning when a new program is being implemented. Through this approach, trust can be built.
  • Provide communities with information that shows that locking up prisoners does not always make communities safer. Demonstrate that supportive housing programs can be successful for ex-offenders and benefit the community overall.
  • Examine successful practices from harm reduction approach utilized in providing housing services to people with HIV/AIDS. The Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program is a successful partnership between government agencies, communities, and the residents the programs serve.

Reduce discrimination

One panelist suggested that Congress should be encouraged to enact legislation similar to Minnesota's Criminal Offenders Rehabilitation Act. This act stipulates that ex-offenders cannot be discriminated against after one year following release from prison. The legislation could also stipulate that discrimination was unlawful except where the opportunity (e.g., a job, housing, etc.) was directly linked to the specific crime committed.

Another panelist suggested that progress could be made by examining the issues of housing, homelessness, and reentry through a race perspective. Racial disparities in sentencing do a great disservice to the American public and should be examined, dissected, and discussed.

The Soft Target Priorities
Synthesize knowledge on successful programs; share best practices

In general, the panelists agreed that, to date, little is known about model programs. Many panelists referred to the importance of documenting the successful strategies, programs, and partnerships that currently exist. The first step should be to look for successful models, and encourage programs and key leaders to document the impact of their programs, including the costs and benefits. As mentioned above, many felt that the cost-benefit argument would be a strong foundation to demonstrate the success of programs. A few panelists reiterated this thought throughout the day, and stated that building an evaluation component into housing programs should be a priority for community agencies. Successful models can then be brought to scale. Understanding successes could lead to an understanding of the different types of interventions; how to match needs to services; what length of stay is appropriate for clients with different needs—basically, to determine who needs what intervention.

A panelist emphasized that there is great need for coupling employment services and sober living with housing services, and hence, the documentation of successful models that are comprehensive in nature would be of great use to communities, funders, and government agencies.

Encourage the support of the faith community

Many panelists mentioned that governments should seek to learn about how the faith community is serving returning prisoners. They cited anecdotal and emerging research evidence that the faith community is heavily involved in serving returning prisoners. Partnerships between criminal justice and housing agencies could benefit from the inclusion of congregations and other faith-based institutions.

Establish state and local regulations for safe and drug-free housing

Often, there are no regulations particular to establishing and running safe and drug-free housing facilities. A few panelists suggested that uniform quality standards and codes for existing housing facilities and programs would greatly benefit clients and communities.

Dispel the myths regarding restrictions to Public Housing and Section 8 Housing

With regard to using public housing as an option for returning prisoners, many panelists felt there were too many myths surrounding ex-offender restrictions in public housing and Section 8 housing. Many jurisdictions use discretion in determining whether public housing and/or Section 8 housing may be a viable option for many returning prisoners. Documenting the ways that this discretion can be exercised to benefit the community, the returning prisoners, and the tenants could help overcome more rigid interpretations of the One Strike policy.

The Promising Opportunities

In the afternoon, the panelists switched focus to discuss the opportunities for new strategies and policy innovations. The panelists pinpointed opportunities that fell into three categories: (1) comprehensive, neighborhood-based strategies, (2) flexible funding streams, and (3) education and transmission of knowledge.

Comprehensive Services

Throughout the discussion, the word "partnership" was mentioned numerous times. The panelists felt that comprehensive reintegration services that involve the community are the most successful in serving returning prisoners. Many encouraged the participation of community agencies and residents. Some panelists suggested the programs that the most successful programs are those that serve returning prisoners using a customer or client perspective, not a third party perspective. The customer/client perspective will build trust among all parties involved. Utilizing the customer perspective could also help to determine the most needed supports and develop informal networks to link individuals to jobs and housing.

Other panelists suggested the use of intermediaries to bridge different systems so systems could begin to become less fragmented and more likely to collaborate. The panelists discussed how nongovernmental organizations could be strong intermediaries within partnerships. In addition, comprehensive programs that work directly with businesses and/or utilize the entrepreneurship model were identified as promising opportunities.

One panelist suggested that interagency alliances that have high-level political involvement would enable successful reentry models. HUD's initiative to develop ten-year plans to end homelessness has resulted in strong interagency collaborations within a number of states that could be used as a model to develop a national or statewide reentry plan. With regard to the HUD initiative, state efforts are trickling down to the local level. States and local governments could work together to develop a continuum for returning offenders. Successful programs could then be brought to scale. Another panelist added that the reverse can also happen—that a successful small-scale program receiving national attention can then be transferred and formalized into a state plan for replication by counties within the states. This strategy was successful in Baltimore, where the Reentry Partnership (REP) of the Enterprise Foundation is currently being brought to scale across the state of Maryland. Similarly, panelists suggested examining other tried-and-true program models like Oxford House4 to determine if these can be brought to scale.

Flexible Funding Streams

Some panelists suggested that housing programs that defy categorization are the most effective programs. These programs are utilizing either a variety of funding streams or are not mandated to utilize restrictive eligibility criteria. Often, blended funding provides the opportunity to be innovative and nonrestrictive in services and eligibility. Similarly, programs that are built on multisystem partnerships (e.g., corrections, homeless services system, community) provide flexibility in the types of clients served, and the suite of services provided. In many cases, flexible funding streams provide the opportunities to utilize funds for housing subsidies, thereby making traditionally unaffordable housing affordable. Many panelists agreed that simply adding funding for services with a reentry system would not solve the unaffordable problem.

Documentation of Successes and Transfer of Knowledge to the Community

The panelists agreed that more opportunities would arise as successes are documented and publicized. In this view, success breeds interest, which breeds more success. Panelists suggested that funding agencies should mandate documentation of outcomes in a systematic method. Aggregation of data from programs and models would provide knowledge of successes and best practices. Evidence of successful programs could then be transferred to the community and assist in building community understanding and interest in the reentry process.

Next Steps

The day culminated with a synthesis of the earlier two sessions. The panelists were asked to put forth one or two ideas describing what they thought were the critical next steps for policy, practice, or research. The following is an inclusive list and does not represent group consensus.

Next Steps for Policy

  • Encourage high-level political endorsement in reentry planning;
  • Set goals and standards for discharge planning from correctional facilities. Create standards at both the state and national level. This can help change practice
  • Modify one-strike housing regulations so discretion is not used to target ex-offenders with minor offenses, or offenses that occurred far in the past.
  • Legislate reforms in corrections. Revise the "get tough" statutes and related policies to take into account the need for supervised release.
  • Educate the community about the problems facing returning prisoners. Encourage input from the community. Community forums and informal discussions with community residents can establish trust and lead to appropriate types of services that fit particular needs of communities. Encourage the development of partnerships between government agencies and community organizations.
  • Mandate specific performance measures and evaluation with government and private funding of programs.

Next Steps for Practice

  • Encourage investment from private donors, and bring together partners. Partnership programs can bridge fragmented services systems. Private funders are good sources of funding to address systems change. When systems change is successful, replicate.
  • Reentry partnerships should not only include government agencies, but also faith community and business community.
  • Utilize nongovernmental organizations as intermediaries in reentry partnerships.
  • Dispel myths about restrictions to public and Section 8 housing and provide incentives (e.g., rent vouchers or tax credits) to landlords who house returning prisoners or ex-offenders.
  • Build evaluation into program implementation and maintenance.
  • Develop tools and curriculum around training for multiple systems that are supporting common interest of serving returning prisoners. Train parole officers to work with community organizations and to be knowledgeable about the services community organizations can provide. Parole officers should utilize graduated sanctions that incorporate supervision needs.
  • Convene siting commissions or community boards that work together with government to determine the best sites for halfway houses and community reentry centers.

Next Steps for Research

  • Catalog the policy obstacles and clarify what is myth. Disaggregate obstacles into categories: which are federal obstacles, state, local government, or community obstacles.
  • Examine partnership successes and document successful strategies to implement and maintain strong partnerships. Research that utilized case studies of promising programs could provide insight on what works and why, and what could be replicated in other communities.
  • Document funding streams. By understanding how the different systems fund housing-related services, communities can benefit. Document who is successful with the various funding streams.
  • New studies could examine the nature and extent of housing services being utilized at pre-release facilities and halfway houses and identify promising models along a continuum of services. Similarly, research could quantify the costs and benefits associated with these facilities as compared to direct release.
  • Research could also begin to focus on the promising practices for specialized populations. For instance, are there successful housing opportunities for violent offenders or sex offenders?

Notes from this Section

1. LIHTC is run by the Treasury Department.

2. The federally administered HOME and LIHTC programs—while important for supporting affordable housing production—do not generally pertain to assisting returning prisoners or ex-offenders.

3. See http://www.viewfromtheground.com/view.cfm/stories/onestrikeintro.html.

4. An Oxford House is a self-governing alcohol- and drug-free house chartered by Oxford House, Inc. The first Oxford House was founded in 1975 by the residents themselves.

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Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice | Housing

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