Some 6,000 inmates serving time for drug crimes were released early from federal prisons over the weekend. One of the most pressing questions facing the newly freed is where they’ll live. Many are likely to end up on the street: More than half of all the homeless in the United States were once in prison, thanks in part to discrimination that’s baked into the housing system.
On Monday President Obama announced a series of measures intended to help the formerly incarcerated find jobs and homes. Most of the attention has gone to his show of support for “banning the box” that forces people to reveal criminal convictions on job applications. Over 100 cities and counties, and 19 states, have already done so. Now, under Obama’s executive order, the federal government will delay inquiries about an applicant’s criminal history until late in the hiring process.
The White House also took an essential but overlooked step towards undoing some of the draconian housing policies that have made it difficult for returning citizens to rejoin their families and stay off the streets. Local public housing authorities can no longer use arrest records as “the sole basis for denying admission, terminating assistance or evicting tenants,” according to the new directive from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD also reminded local authorities that “one strike” rules requiring rejection for any type of criminal activity aren’t mandated by federal policy, a common misconception. The agency will spend $1.7 million to help public-housing residents under 24 to expunge their records, and another $8.7 million for Permanent Supportive Housing for the newly released.
“In the context of policies to support reentry, safe and stable housing has incredibly powerful anti-recidivism effects, and yet many people who are released from incarceration have no idea where they’re going to live. About one-third expect to go to homeless shelters upon release,” said Rebeca Vallas, the director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
Rules vary by city, but many local public housing authorities exclude people with a criminal record either completely or for several years, exacerbating bias that exists in the wider housing market. In a recent survey of formerly incarcerated people and their families, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 79 percent of respondents had been denied housing because of their own criminal record or a relative’s. One in ten reported that family members were evicted when their relatives returned from prison. Because of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, these barriers to housing likely have a disproportionate impact on people of color.