Many folks who are incarcerated look forward to their release date and life on the outside – from spending time with loved ones to eating the foods they’ve been craving to even just feeling strands of grass between their toes. Returning to DC from incarceration, however, too often means coming home to homelessness. In fact, when you ask individuals in DC what led to their homelessness, more than one-third of them point to their incarceration.
If the District is to meet its goal of ending this problem, policymakers must improve housing and services for returning citizens to help them avoid it whenever possible and move into housing quickly if they do experience homelessness.
Being homeless often leads to a life that is cut short. People who don’t know where they’re going to spend the night struggle to get the medical treatment or counseling they need. And often they must stay in places that make their illnesses worse. The current COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on this awful reality. People living outside can’t wash their hands frequently because they don’t have sinks, or protect themselves from exposure by staying home. Housing makes our entire community safer and healthier.
Both the Most Important Need and the Biggest Challenge
Securing housing is returning citizens’ most important need and biggest challenge. Those who aren’t able to find housing may turn to homeless shelters, benches or tents, often under a bridge – pushed into the shadows. Housing not only provides one of the utmost human rights, it also has broad individual and societal benefits by establishing stability for employment, substance abuse assistance and mental health treatment. Individuals who face multiple barriers and are not able to meet basic needs are more likely to return to crime, contributing to a relentless cycle between jail and homelessness.
Returning citizens typically have low incomes and face the same housing challenges as other District residents with low incomes, living in a city with rapidly rising rents and costs that far exceed what people can afford on minimum and low wages. However, returning citizens also face unique challenges that exacerbate their hurdles to finding safe, stable and affordable housing.
Being separated while incarcerated leads to weaker bonds with family and friends, leaving many with no one to stay with upon release. Most are released from prison without savings or a job, and thus lack funds for housing application fees, security deposits and rent.
Returning citizens also face high rates of discrimination in the housing market, even though this is illegal. Many landlords do not want to rent to returning citizens.
Finally, returning citizens experience mental health problems at higher rates than other residents. It is likely that many with mental health needs do not receive adequate services while incarcerated. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which manages the federal prisons that DC residents are incarcerated in, classifies just 3% of its inmates as having a mental illness serious enough to require regular treatment. This is much lower than the 20% to 30% who receive regular treatment in the state prison system, and suggests that BOP underestimates the extent of this need.
A Matter of Racial Justice
Returning citizens in DC are overwhelmingly black, as are residents experiencing homelessness. This reflects a long history of racial discrimination and disparities in housing markets, employment, police interactions, arrest and sentencing. “Black and White Americans encounter the police at different rates and for different reasons, and they are treated differently during these encounters,” according to the Sentencing Project, both because of formal policies and the choices police officers make.
Officers are more likely to stop black drivers and, once stopped, more likely to search them as well. “Stop and frisk” policies, in which officers search individuals for contraband, are often implemented in black neighborhoods against black residents. As a result, people of color are also more likely to be arrested than whites. Additionally, people of color are more likely to be charged with a crimeconvicted and receive harsher sentences for the same crimes than whites are.
Returning Citizens Experience Particular Hardships
The strong link between incarceration and homelessness is ultimately a policy failure at the local and national levels. That’s because the District has a unique criminal justice system, involving a complicated mix of local and federal facilities and agencies. Individuals who have violated a DC law face additional obstacles because they are incarcerated by the BOP, rather than by a state prison. This means DC has no control over where individuals are housed, and isolates them from their loved ones and local service providers.
DC also has no control over services provided in the federal prisons or at the federally managed halfway houses that citizens return to. In addition to not receiving needed mental health services, many returning citizens miss out on education or training. The vast majority of halfway house residents report there is no exit planning, leading people to become homeless when their mandated time in the halfway house is over.
The District Can Act
After reviewing research and getting direct input from DC’s returning citizens, service providers and government officials, DC Fiscal Policy Institute offers the following housing and shelter recommendations:
- Create a new program to connect returning citizens with loved ones and offering financial assistance and services to support these living arrangements.
- Create medium-term housing options, in recognition that the first years following incarceration are especially important and that the risk of recidivism is highest in this period.
- Prioritize returning citizens with high service needs and high likelihood of recidivism for DC’s Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) program for residents with high service needs.
- Create shelter beds especially for returning citizens with services to meet their unique needs.
Beyond housing, we recommend:
- Strengthening mental health services by providers as part of discharge planning and ensuring that services are available for all who need them.
- Helping individuals find and keep employment.
- Preparing individuals for return by connecting them to loved ones and DC service providers while still incarcerated. The days and months following release are key to success, so these connections need to be available immediately.
Finally, the District needs a strategic plan to tackle homelessness among returning citizens that includes a needs assessment and assigns roles and responsibilities to the many government agencies involved in reentry.
While it would be an expensive undertaking, taking full control of our criminal justice system would make it easier to solve many of these problems. DC would create its own courts, prison, halfway houses and parole system. The city would also control prison and halfway house programming to ensure that each inmate has access to mental health services, education, employment and housing location assistance.
By implementing these recommendations, the District can put returning citizens on the path to success.
Kate Coventry is an Senior Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.