Whether a former prisoner’s conviction was for a violent, nonviolent, blue- or white-collar crime, there seems no shortage of reasons to justify denying them assistance. Nowhere is this more prevalent than housing, and soon this problem may be far worse in Texas.
The federal government provides the vast majority of funds required for assisted housing. But restrictions bar citizens convicted of sex offenses, arson and some drug crimes from that funding. This compounds the fact that former prisoners are already 10 times more likely to be homeless than any other segment of the population. (See PLN, February 2020, p. 22, and May 2020, p. 60.)
Now, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) is pushing to add even more restrictions that will swell the already-draconian disqualifiers in place for released prisoners needing housing. An October 23, 2020 Houston Chronicle revealed that the TDHCA had added a string of nonviolent felonies and even misdemeanor offenses to the list of disqualifiers for released prisoners to obtain assisted housing. The prohibition would last for a two-year period.
A month later, the Austin American-Statesman reported TDHCA’s prohibition period for released prisoners seeking assisted housing could go as high as seven years in some cases. This report also indicates Texas’ recidivism rate is now at 47%, up from a longstanding 30.7%.
While public pressure scaled back the controversial rule aimed at limiting housing options, it still worries advocates. The first three years after release is the most critical period in a former prisoner’s life, which is why recidivism statistics are predicated on the three-year period immediately following a prisoner’s release.
TDHCA’s proposed changes have been met with withering dissent and condemnation by Democratic and Republican state representatives who labeled it a “misguided plan.” Republican James White, who chairs the Texas House Corrections Committee, called it “absolutely unproductive,” adding “This housing program is funded through federal tax credits and federal policy has addressed this issue since 2016, and I have not heard of any concerns. TDHCA needs to pull the damn rule. This is bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy.”
Future entrants into the “just released from prison” category in Texas during the COVID-19 pandemic that would need housing are much fewer than may be expected. At the pandemic’s beginning in March 2020, Texas had 138,500 prisoners, 79,552 of whom were eligible for parole release. (PLN, November 2020, p. 27) An editorial board piece in the Houston Chronicle during the first week in December reported the prisoner census at 121,800. This means only a miniscule number of 16,700 Texas prisoners have been released, leaving another 62,852 release-eligible prisoners in prison.
Texas needs to end agency attempts to restrict assistive housing for released prisoners over and above what the federal government has already imposed. release more of its eligible prisoners from carceral housing, which costs state taxpayers an average $35,000 a year per prisoner to outside assisted housing, which costs only an average $17,000 yearly paid by the federal government.
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