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Report: Homelessness and Housing Insecurity are Hurdles for Former Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

More than a half-million Americans are homeless on any given day, and for the five million ex-prisoners in the U.S., the rate of homelessness is almost 10 times higher than among the general population. According to a report issued by the Prison Policy Initiative in August 2018, “up to 15% of incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year before admission to prison,” and that problem only gets more difficult to solve following their release from custody.

The report, which was based on 2008 survey data, found that “rates of homelessness are especially high among ... people who have been incarcerated more than once, people recently released from prison, [and] people of color.” Former prisoners are frequent users of homeless shelters, motels, hotels and other forms of temporary housing, the report stated.

Unfortunately, the rate of homelessness increases the more times someone has been incarcerated. First-time offenders are homeless seven times more often than the general public, but for those jailed more than once the homeless rate rises to 13 times that of the public.

Homelessness is statistically more of a problem for black women, who have a rate nearly four times higher than white men and double that of black men. A previous study found that unemployment among black women is also higher than that of white or black men.

Housing insecurity – an issue for all people with limited incomes and a lack of access to affordable housing – is even more problematic for the formerly incarcerated. Further, the dearth of safe and stable housing for ex-prisoners makes it even harder to find meaningful full-time employment, access to healthcare, substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment.

Unfortunately, homeless people also have more interactions with the police that often lead to their arrest and reincarceration.

The Prison Policy Initiative made several recommendations for helping recently-released prisoners find stable housing. Included in their suggestions were organizing a community resource to match prisoners with housing options other than shelters before their release, financial support to help them make the transition to the community, banning the box on housing applications that asks about prior felony convictions and ending the criminalization of homelessness.

The report also highlighted a promising program in Utah called “Housing First,” which recognizes that stable housing allows former prisoners to obtain a job, health care and improve their lives, making it less likely they will return to prison.

Indeed, making solutions to the homeless problem a budget priority can improve the quality of life not only for people who lack stable housing, including ex-prisoners, but also for the rest of society.

In last month’s issue, PLN reported on the large number of New York prisoners who end up in homeless shelters following their release – a problem that is certainly not limited to the Empire State. [See: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.54]. 


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