Take a moment to consider: what does it mean to return home from prison? Can you imagine what it feels like, after spending months or years of being incarcerated and navigating the daily stresses of the prison system, to try to figure out how to re-integrate back into broader society? With no job, no place to live, and very few resources at your disposal, who could you rely on to help you get back on your feet? What happens if those relationships have been strained or no longer exist because of the time spent in prison? How do you figure out how to build a new life?
It can be all too easy to forget that people don’t simply disappear when they are sentenced for a crime - after they go to prison and serve their time, they return back to their communities. When they do so, however, there is a whole new set of challenges to face. One of the first things that a returning citizen needs to figure out is where to live, and this often proves difficult if not impossible. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), "Roughly 48,000 people entering shelters every year are coming nearly directly from prisons or jails.” This lack of viable housing options for citizens returning from prison is one of the biggest obstacles to flourishing upon reentering society.
One of the first barriers to housing that recently released individuals face is not having a job or an income. It is difficult to attain housing without a job, and a job is difficult to get when employment prospects are limited because of a criminal record. Many people are not able to get a full-time job that comes with a stable paycheck, and the type of work that they are able to get - often part-time, getting paid “under the table” - does not provide the proof of income and consistent ability to make monthly payments that are necessary to sign and maintain a lease.
Even with a regular source of income, landlords may not want to offer a lease to a returning citizen. Many service providers report that when they try to place clients with criminal records, there is an assumption on the part of property managers that they will be “bad tenants” and not respect the property. In some cases, there are local restrictions that effectively discourage landlords from renting to people with criminal records. For example, in Hagerstown, MD, landlords can be fined if neighbors regularly call the police about disturbances at the property, including calls for noise complaints or a “suspicious person.” Such restrictions often result in landlords not being willing to take on the perceived risk of renting to someone who is returning from prison and who may be considered a safety concern by neighbors.
Additionally, accessing financial assistance for housing can be difficult due to barriers to employment. There is very little rental assistance available relative to the need for affordable housing in the U.S. In his book Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that two out of every three poor renting families receive no federal assistance. In Baltimore City, voucher programs have been overwhelmed with applicants; nearly 75,000 applied to get on a waitlist for Housing Choice Vouchers in 2015, with only 1,000 - 1,500 vouchers available yearly, and the waitlist for a new mobility program had to be cut off at 12,000 at the beginning of 2017, with only 1,000 vouchers left. With such high demand, many programs - public and private - try to screen for “deserving” applicants to receive housing subsidies, and in the process create policies that make it harder for people with criminal records to gain access to these programs. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) works to get public housing authorities (PHAs) to eliminate many of these barriers (for example, this notice from 2015), the decision as to who does and does not receive assistance largely lies with local providers.
The reality is that, after serving their sentence, returning citizens lack a stable income for rent, may have fewer housing options because of their criminal record, and may be denied access to the small amount of housing assistance that is available to them. This leads not only to increased homelessness, but also racial inequality. Our criminal justice system incarcerates people of color at significantly higher rates than whites; therefore, people of color are disproportionately denied housing on the basis of their records.
For Christians, if we are to be committed to ending homelessness and combatting racial discrimination, we need to focus on dismantling barriers and obstacles that keep individuals who were formerly in the criminal justice system from finding housing. Imagine being seen constantly in terms of the worst thing you have ever done - that is exactly what happens when we label people as criminals on the basis of their prior involvement with the justice system. As Christians, God sees us as children, lovingly created in His own image. His grace extends to every person, regardless of their past. This grace is a grace that we receive freely, apart from any action of our own doing; therefore, we have the responsibility to freely extend grace to others.
With this understanding of grace, Christians should prioritize formerly incarcerated individuals’ access to affordable housing upon their return to society. The Connecticut Collaborative on Re-Entry provides a model for what this could look like: identifying those who are the most likely to end up returning to prison, due to their circumstances and in some cases disabilities, and providing them with the housing and services that they need in order to flourish. Connecticut has seen a 73 percent decrease in recidivism rates. A new report from the Prisoner Reentry Institute, “A Place to Call Home," details what it looks like to focus on providing supportive housing in our communities, discussing a variety of models that have been tested and evaluated across the country. Successful approaches like these are built upon the belief that we cannot simply give up on people, but rather that we have a responsibility to connect them with the resources they need in order to be re-integrated into their community.
Local programs, government agencies, and nonprofit partners all need our assistance to make this happen. They need to find communities and landlords who are willing to welcome formerly incarcerated citizens as their neighbors, as one of the biggest challenges is often finding an apartment building where people are not turned away because of their prior record. This is also an area where local and state advocacy has proven very effective, because so many of these decisions are made at a local level. In Maryland, the Job Opportunities Task Force(JOTF) has helped to build long-term coalitions to support solutions to the system, like “Ban the Box” legislation that removes questions about criminal records from job applications.
We need communities that welcome returning citizens back and support their reentry, not ones that write them off for the rest of their lives. Stable housing is a vital component of successful reentry. We must acknowledge this, and then look for the people - in our community, nonprofits, local and state governments, and churches - who are as willing to extend God’s grace as they are to receive it.
-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, a project manager in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and an advocate for great neighborhoods.