Toyan “TJ” Harper, PhD candidate, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice
Imagine stepping out of prison, your time served, ready to start afresh. But the world outside isn’t so welcoming. With only $50 in your pocket—often the average amount of gate money provided post-release—and no friends or family in the vicinity, you are left wondering what to do and where to go.[i] This is the reality for many formerly incarcerated individuals, who face a daunting barrier: finding housing. The statistics are stark and reveal a deep-rooted crisis. Formerly incarcerated people are nearly ten times more likely to be homeless than the public.[ii] In numbers, this translates to 203 out of every 10,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, and an even more people, 570 out of every 10,000,[iii] grappling with housing insecurity, which includes living in marginal conditions like motels or rooming houses.
Behind these numbers are real people with real stories. Consider the story of Jelani who, upon release, found encountered rejection and despair. Despite his efforts to leave his past behind, every housing application he completed became a reminder of his criminal record. Landlords turned him away, one after another, not seeing the person he had become but only the mistakes he had made. For Jelani, and many like him, the path to rebuilding life outside prison walls is fraught with obstacles that go far beyond finding a job. It’s about finding a place to call home, a sanctuary where one feels safe enough to heal and grow.
Moreover, women of color who have been incarcerated face the highest risk of homelessness, with formerly incarcerated women more likely to be homeless than men.[iv] This disparity is even more pronounced in Black and Latinx communities, highlighting the intersection of racial and gender inequalities within the housing crisis for the formerly incarcerated.
This crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness is exacerbated by a number of systemic barriers. Discrimination by public housing authorities and private property owners, combined with affordable housing shortages, significantly hinders access to stable housing for those with criminal records. The process of securing housing is further complicated by application requirements like credit checks, large security deposits, and professional references, which can be particularly challenging for individuals who have been out of the labor market due to incarceration. The lack of stable housing for formerly incarcerated individuals often creates an insurmountable hole in their journey towards reintegration, severely hindering their access to essential services such as healthcare and employment.
The systemic exclusion faced by formerly incarcerated individuals extends its detrimental effects beyond the individual level, significantly impacting entire communities. When these individuals struggle with stable housing, it not only hampers their personal reintegration efforts but also contributes to broader societal issues. Communities are affected as poverty and recidivism escalates, leading to increased social and economic burdens. The lack of access to essential services like healthcare and employment for these individuals often translates into higher societal costs associated with incarceration and recidivism. This includes increased spending on social services, legal systems, and correctional facilities. Furthermore, communities suffer from a loss of potential contributions from these individuals, whether in the form of workforce participation, community involvement, or economic activity.
Addressing this crisis requires a multifaceted approach. It demands policy changes, such as banning the box on housing applications, to prevent discrimination based on criminal records. It calls for a “Housing First”[v] strategy, prioritizing the provision of housing as a fundamental step in reintegration. It necessitates an expansion of social services, offering support beyond just a place to stay. But most importantly, it requires a shift in societal perspective, to see formerly incarcerated individuals not as their past mistakes, but as fellow humans deserving of a chance to rebuild their lives. This struggle is not just about a roof over one’s head. It’s about dignity, opportunity, and the right to another chance. The housing crisis among those formerly incarcerated is a poignant reminder of the long road to redemption that our society often makes more difficult than it ought to be. It’s a call to action, to create a more compassionate and inclusive society where everyone, regardless of their past, has a fair chance at a future.
[i] Armstrong, M., & Lewis, N. (2019, September 10). What Gate Money Can (And Cannot) Buy. The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/09/10/what-gate-money-can-and-cannot-buy
[ii] National Low Income Housing Coalition. (2018). Formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless. https://nlihc.org/resource/formerly-incarcerated-people-are-nearly-10-times-more-likely-be-homeless
[iii] Couloute, L. (2018, August). Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/housing.html
[iv] National Low Income Housing Coalition (2018).
[v] National Alliance to End Homelessness (2022, Mach 20). “Housing First.” https://endhomelessness.org/resource/housing-first/