Homelessness and Prisoner Reentry: Examining Barriers to Housing Stability and Evidence Based Strategies that Promote Improved Outcomes

Homelessness and Prisoner Reentry: Examining Barriers to Housing Stability and Evidence Based Strategies that Promote Improved Outcomes

Each year approximately 700,000 individuals return home from state prisons in the United States and an additional 9 million are released from county jails and more than ten percent of those coming in and out of prisons and jails are homeless in the months preceding their incarceration (Council on State Governments, 2016). Being homeless, unstably housed, or living in a high crime neighborhood all heighten someone’s risk of reoffending (Andrews, 1995). Ex-offenders with mental illness have higher rates of homelessness and housing insecurity (Council on State Governments, 2005; Fries et al, 2014; MacDonald et al, 2015; Brown et al, 2013, Herbert et al, 2015; Aidala et al, 2014). Homelessness is not just a public safety issue but also a public health issue. New Jersey has successfully reduced its state prison population by nearly 37% since 1999 in large part by creating alternatives to incarceration and providing community-based reentry and treatment services (Sentencing Project, 2015). Despite this infrastructure in place, the needs of homeless ex-offenders can confound both housing and reentry experts. The purpose of this paper is to examine the barriers homeless ex-offenders face in accessing emergency and permanent housing and what strategies can be employed to combat exoffender homelessness and housing instability. The paper considers how the rationing of social services to ex-offenders has had a negative effect on successful prisoner reentry and how these ineffective policies do not promote public safety. Collateral sanctions such as ineligibility for social entitlements or community notification compounded by the increased trend of exoffenders leaving prison without supervision increase housing instability. Discharge planning, expanding transition services, and providing targeted housing for ex-offenders can play a critical role in improving housing stability, especially for those ex-offenders with a mental health diagnosis, a history of addiction, or who have been convicted of a sexual offense. As an experienced provider of services to both exoffenders and to the homeless, I see how the lack of affordable housing leaves ex-offenders competing with others who have no criminal history for the same limited resources. Creative housing alternatives do exist for homeless exoffenders and they have significant implications for public safety and public health. To reduce homelessness for ex-offenders, a broad stakeholder group must consider the implications of collateral sanctions, the trend toward maxing out of state prison sentences, the unique risk factors of homeless ex-offenders, and models that have been successfully implemented to improve housing stability. 

PUBLICATION DATE: 2017