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New York’s Prison-to-Shelter Pipeline is Poor Option for Parolees

by Dale Chappell

Released from prison, many New York parolees – instead of getting back on their feet through re-entry programs – are heading to homeless shelters in New York City. Of approximately 9,300 prisoners paroled from state prisons in 2017, 54 percent (around 5,000) went directly to shelters – up from 23 percent just three years earlier.

Those 5,000 parolees represented about one in seven of the state’s 35,500 parolees and about one in five new arrivals at New York City homeless shelters last year. The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) does not track how long they stay there, but said the population is fluid enough that only about 1,600 parolees are in the city’s shelter system at any given time.

“It’s like living in a maze,” said Fred Henderson, who was released from prison in 2009. “The shelter system is worse than prison. At least in prison you know how long you’re gonna be in there and then you get released. In the shelter system, you’re allegedly free, but you’re not. It’s like doing another sentence.”

Henderson, 58, served 10 years for bank robbery at the state’s Franklin Correctional Facility. Released on parole, he spent another three years at Wards Island Shelter – where the city’s police department recorded 27 violent assaults in 2013. Parole officers did not respond to Henderson’s repeated requests to relocate, so he willfully violated parole to get back before a judge. Since then, he has been struggling through the “three-quarter house” system, a loosely-regulated collection of privately-operated, for-profit residential programs. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.1].

Prisoners released in New York have three options if they cannot live with their family: three-quarter houses, a homeless shelter or the street. Three-quarter houses, however, have been subject to charges of corruption – the one Henderson entered was operated by Narco Freedom, which was indicted for stealing $27 million from Medicaid amid accusations of insurance fraud and paying kickbacks. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.58].

In September 2015, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) transferred responsibility for Narco Freedom’s 1,100 parolees to Samaritan DayTop Village. But just 258 of those parolees have been placed in permanent housing. The rest, including Henderson, remain in squalid housing overseen by a court-appointed landlord.

“I’ve been doing this for almost eight years,” Henderson said of living in his building, where a bed bug infestation persists and a broken elevator means the wheelchair-bound parolee must haul himself up two flights of stairs. “You start to lose hope.”

New York City pays between $100 and $300 per night to house a parolee in a homeless shelter – where he or she is locked out during the day. But if arrested again and sent to jail, the average housing cost skyrockets to $748 nightly. A 2002 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that over 32 percent of prisoners released to a homeless shelter were reincarcerated within two years of release.

“If you put somebody who’s not going to have any support in an environment like a shelter, the risk is going to be much higher that they go back to what they know” – namely, illegal activities, said Stephen Metraux, the study’s author.

DOCCS insists that homeless shelters are a destination of last resort for its parolees – even though more than half of them ended up there last year. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the state for “dumping” parolees into shelters.

“This is exacerbating our homeless problem,” he said. “The state needs to step up and give these parolees some actual support.”

The office of New York Governor Mario Cuomo responded that the prison-to-shelter rate has gone down, and that parolees make up only a small number of the city’s entire shelter population – which is estimated at 60,000 people on any given night.

Driving the homelessness problem is an expensive rental market on one hand and, on the other, a steady flow of people recently released from prison or other institutional settings. The 9,300 state prisoners who are paroled every year represent just part of more than 25,000 people released from New York prisons annually, according to DOCCS statistics. They are joined by another 68,000 released from city jails each year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

“You’ve got this kind of perfect storm,” observed Ann Jacobs, Director of the Prison Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“No amount of discharge planning is going to get folks housing if there’s no housing on the back end,” agreed Erin Burns, senior program manager at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a non-profit that creates supportive housing for the homeless and those living in extreme poverty.

“Without the support that goes with your supportive housing, someone with a criminal justice background will not be able to succeed in the community,” explained CSH director Kristin Miller. “In addition to having special needs, like mental health disorders, substance abuse in their history and medical issues, they also face a challenging time finding affordable housing and employment.”

In 2008, CSH’s Frequent User Services Enhancement (FUSE) project, which identifies those with the longest involvement in the city’s health, shelter or jail systems, placed 200 people in a pilot supportive housing program. By 2009, 91 percent remained off the streets and out of shelters. Compared to a similar group not in the program, they had spent 147 fewer days in a shelter over a two-year period and 19 fewer days incarcerated, saving the city over $7,300 per person annually in costs associated with medical and behavioral crisis services.

“To be isolated [on the street or in a shelter], you’re almost in a state of perpetual crisis,” said Jeff Nemetsky, executive director of Brooklyn Community Housing and Services (BCHS), which was part of the FUSE project. “Almost by definition you’re not creating a support network for yourself and you’re going to live in the world in a precarious state where you don’t have comfort or confidence in yourself and the future.”

Developing social skills, Nemetsky explained, was the primary benefit of participating in the community that was formed among those who were enrolled in BCHS. But the organization is part of just a small group of supportive housing providers in the city, which offers in total less than 1,000 housing units to people involved with the criminal justice system.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides funds for most of the nation’s homeless housing programs – but a newly-released prisoner does not meet HUD’s definition of “homeless.” Instead, that population is forced to live on the street or in a shelter before being able to apply for HUD housing. Without another source of funding, about 15,000 new permanent supportive housing units in New York City, which Mayor de Blasio has committed to creating, will be out of reach for new parolees – even those who are elderly or suffering from mental or physical disabilities.

New York City has two housing voucher programs that pay landlords some or most of the rent for certain tenants. Special Exit and Prevention Supplement (SEPS) is for homeless singles and couples, while Living in Communities (LINC) is for homeless families with children, elderly people who are homeless and victims of domestic abuse.

The city’s Human Rights Law prohibits landlords from discriminating based on a tenant’s sources of income – including vouchers. But enforcement is lax, so even after applying and waiting for a voucher, many homeless New Yorkers still find themselves in a shelter.

“The whole concept of vouchers is to enable people to get out of the shelter system, which is expensive and not an appropriate place for long term living,” said Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Instead we are seeing that people are looking, certainly doing their due diligence to try and find housing, but the landlords are shutting it down.”

In November 2015, four of five LINC vouchers remained unused. The following month, an investigation found just 157 cases had been brought since 2008 against landlords who refused to accept vouchers, resulting in fines averaging $5,441 each. Over 60 percent of those landlords faced no fines at all.

Some landlords blame the abrupt 2011 shut-down of the city’s Advantage Program, a voucher system that began in 2007 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When many tenants were suddenly unable to pay their rent due to the shut-down, landlords lost income and were forced to seek costly evictions, making them reluctant to accept vouchers under subsequent programs.

In January 2017, New York City announced enforcement actions against five large landlords who own a total of 20,000 housing units, for refusing to accept rent vouchers. But for Fred Henderson and his neighbors in their court-controlled building, priority SEPS vouchers they received in April 2015 have not led to new housing.

“When we tried to use the voucher or tried [to] go to certain places, the landlords knew nothing about it,” he said. “You come out of jail and you can go into a home, that means everything. Most people come out and they don’t have structure. It gives you a sense of responsibility. A house or an apartment is a responsibility.” 



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