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«Where Will I Sleep Tomorrow? Housing, Homelessness, and the Returning Prisoner Caterina Gouvis Roman The Urban Institute Jeremy Travis City ...»

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Where Will I Sleep Tomorrow?

Housing, Homelessness, and the

Returning Prisoner

Caterina Gouvis Roman

The Urban Institute

Jeremy Travis

City University of New York


This year, over 630,000 prisoners will be released from state and federal

prisons across the country—more than four times as many as were released in

1980. In this article, we examine the scope of the prisoner reentry issue—what

is known about the intersection of housing, homelessness, and reentry and about the barriers returning prisoners face in securing safe and affordable housing.

Although the housing challenges are formidable, progress is being made on numerous fronts. We seek to frame the dynamics of the reentry housing discussion by highlighting the promising strategies that are emerging. These strategies, taken to scale, could help create a very different national policy on prisoner reentry. Ultimately, effective reentry strategies have the potential not only to reduce re-arrest and increase public safety, but also to reduce homelessness.

Keywords: Crime; Homelessness; Urban policy Introduction Every prisoner facing discharge from a correctional institution must answer the question: “Where will I sleep tomorrow?” For many returning prisoners, the answer to that question is the family home. But reunions with families are not always possible—or are only temporary—sometimes due to the dictates of the criminal justice system and other times because of housing policies or family dynamics. For those who cannot return to the home of family or friends, the question of housing becomes considerably more complex. For some, the final answer to the question is a homeless shelter or the street. Difficulty in securing appropriate and affordable housing complicates the reentry



390 Caterina Gouvis Roman and Jeremy Travis process, further reducing already limited chances for successful community reintegration.

Reentry is the process of leaving prison and returning to society. With the exception of those who die in prison, all prisoners will at some point return to the community. This year, over 630,000 prisoners will be released from state and federal prisons across the country—more than four times as many as were released in 1980. In this article, we examine the scope of one critical dimension of the prisoner reentry issue1: namely, the intersection of housing, homelessness, and reentry and the barriers returning prisoners face in securing safe and affordable housing. We also seek to frame the current dynamics of the reentry housing discussion by highlighting the promising practices that are emerging across the country.

With regard to reentry in general, some jurisdictions have begun to tackle the issue through nontraditional methods—by broadening the reentry perspective to include partners outside of the criminal justice arena. These jurisdictions have articulated a common ground of policy interests and redefined the term “stakeholder” to include housing and homeless assistance agencies, community and faith-based agencies, local residents, and private businesses. These strategies, taken to scale, could help create a very different national policy on prisoner reentry. The challenges and obstacles are formidable, but progress in surmounting those obstacles is being made on numerous fronts. Recognizing that housing is a key ingredient for successful prisoner reentry is the first step on the path to developing broad support for coordinated reentry housing mechanisms.

Prisoner reentry—The scope of the issue Over the past generation, the United States has placed greater reliance on incarceration as a response to crime. As a result, far more people have spent time behind bars, some in prison and some in jail, than ever before. The record level of movement in and out of the country’s prisons and jails has far-reaching consequences for the individual prisoners themselves, their families, and the communities to which they return (Hagan and Dinovitzer 2001; Petersilia 2003; Travis, Solomon, and Waul 2001).

During the past 20 years, the United States has experienced a massive increase in incarceration. The total prison population increased from 330,000 1 This article focuses on those leaving prison, as opposed to jail. People in prison (under the jurisdiction of federal or state authorities) have been convicted of crimes for which the sentence is, at minimum, one year. In almost all states, inmates sentenced to less than a year are held in city and county jails.

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in 1980 to nearly 1.4 million in 1999 (Lynch and Sabol 2001). At the end of 2002, 1 in every 1,656 women and 1 in every 110 men were incarcerated in a state or federal prison (Harrison and Beck 2002). The demographic characteristics of the prisoners who are being released mirror the characteristics of those who are incarcerated. Table 1 provides selected demographic characteristics for prisoners released on parole.2 At the end of 2004, most prisoners who were released on parole were male (88 percent); 40 percent were white, 41 percent were black, and 18 percent were Hispanic (Glaze and Palla 2005). The largest percentage of parolees had been convicted of a drug offense (38 percent). As shown in figure 1, drug offenders have comprised an increasing percentage of prison releases since 1985 (Hughes, Wilson, and Beck 2001).

At the end of 2004, five states (California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas) accounted for just under half of all parolees in the country (Glaze and Palla 2005). Table 2 displays the number of persons on parole in 2004 for these five states. Further, within states, a large proportion of released Table 1. A Profile of Parolees, 2004

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Source: Glaze and Palla (2005).

Note: Total may not equal 100 percent because of rounding.

*Excludes persons of Hispanic origin.

2 Parole is a period of conditional supervised release following a prison term. Prisoners may be released to parole either by a parole board or by mandatory conditional release. However, roughly 20 percent of returning prisoners complete their entire sentence in prison and, as a result, are not under parole supervision after they are released.

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Source: Compiled from Glaze and Palla (2005).

prisoners return to a small number of disadvantaged communities. The Urban Institute’s Returning Home study, a large, multiple-wave study designed to provide detailed information on the characteristics and experiences of returning prisoners in four states (Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas) has examined the concentrations of returning prisoners within cities and neighborhoods.

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1. In Maryland, 59 percent of those released from state prison returned to the city of Baltimore, and 30 percent of those returned to just 6 of its 55 communities (La Vigne and Kachnowski 2003).

2. In Illinois, 51 percent of state prisoners returned to Chicago, and of those, 34 percent returned to just 6 of its 77 communities (La Vigne et al. 2003).

3. In Ohio, 22 percent returned to Cuyahoga County. Of those, 79 percent returned to Cleveland, and 28 percent of those returned to 5 of Cleveland’s 36 communities (LaVigne and Thomson 2003).

4. In Texas, 23 percent of state prisoners returned to Houston, and 25 percent of those are concentrated in 5 of the city’s 185 ZIP codes (Watson et al.


These neighborhoods generally have above-average rates of unemployment, female-headed households, and families living in poverty (LaVigne et al.

2003; LaVigne and Thomson 2003; LaVigne, Visher, and Castro 2004).

Conversations with community residents, reentry policy makers and practitioners, and returning prisoners indicate that many communities are unprepared and lack needed services for this population (Visher and Farrell 2005).

Compared with those released in the 1990s, prisoners released today have generally been in prison for longer periods of time, and fewer of them have participated in education and drug treatment programs (Hagan and Coleman 2001; Lynch and Sabol 2001). Many will return to prison within three years of their release. In the largest recidivism study ever conducted, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) examined 38,000 prisoners (projected to represent 270,000) released from prisons in 15 states in 1994 and found that 67.5 percent were arrested for a new crime (either a felony or a serious misdemeanor) within three years of their release (Langan and Levin 2002). The study also found that most recidivism (two-thirds of all re-arrests) occurs within the first year after release.

A number of issues can complicate the reentry process and create obstacles to securing housing. A large number of returning prisoners have HIV or AIDS or other illnesses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis (National GAINS Center 1999; Roberts, Kennedy, and Hammett 2002). Although national numbers on the prevalence of HIV among returning prisoners are not tabulated, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) estimated that 98,000 to 145,000 inmates with HIV were released from prisons and jails in 1996, representing 13.1 to 19.3 percent of all persons with HIV in the United States (2002). Ex-prisoners also have high rates of substance abuse and mental illness (Beck and Maruschak 2001). Estimates of the

HOUSING POLICY DEBATE394 Caterina Gouvis Roman and Jeremy Travis

substance abuse problems of returning prisoners, which derive from numbers gathered for the incarcerated population, range from 55 to 84 percent (Hughes, Wilson, and Beck 2001; Mumola 1999).

Findings from the Returning Home study show the extent of drug use within a few months of release from prison: 16 percent, 23 percent, and 33 percent of those released in Illinois, Ohio, and Texas, respectively, reported illegal drug use soon after release (Visher 2006). With regard to mental illness, NCCHC estimates that 8 to 16 percent of the prison population has at least one serious mental disorder (2002).3 In addition, women face unique barriers in securing safe and affordable housing when they return home (Ritchie 2000).

Surveys estimate that about 65 percent of women in state prison have children under the age of 18 (Mumola 2000). These women often must find a home not only for themselves, but also for their children.

Reentry and homelessness According to a number of different studies that examine the demographics of prisoners, the population coming in and out of America’s prisons has high rates of homelessness. A BJS study (Hughes, Wilson, and Beck 2001) found that 12 percent of those state prisoners who expected to be released to the community at the end of 1999 reported being homeless at the time of their arrest. Another BJS study found that in 1998, 9 percent of state prison inmates reported living on the street or in a shelter in the 12 months prior to arrest (Ditton 1999). A California study reported that in 1997, 10 percent of that state’s parolees were homeless. In urban areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of all parolees are homeless (California Department of Corrections 1997). A 1999 Urban Institute three-site study of 400 returning prisoners with histories of drug abuse found that 32 percent had been homeless for a month or more at least once in their lifetimes, and 18 percent reported that they were homeless for at least a month in the year after they were released from prison (Rossman et al. 1999).

New attempts at matching parole client names and identification numbers to homeless shelter rolls also indicate that large numbers of parolees rely on shelter systems—though the numbers may underestimate the true extent of the overlap because of missing information. For example, New York reported that at any given time, about 800 parolees, representing roughly 3 percent of the city parole caseload, are in the city shelter system (Riley 2003). Findings from 3 Like other public health statistics on the returning prisoner population, the number of inmates with mental illnesses pending release is not known, although states do report prevalence rates on mental illness in correctional populations.

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a recent study examining the intersection of corrections services and shelter use suggest that prisoners who were homeless at some time in their life were more likely to be homeless after a state prison incarceration than those who had never experienced homelessness (Metraux and Culhane 2004). Specifically, released prisoners with a history of shelter use were almost five times as likely to have had a shelter stay after they left prison. The same study also found that 54 percent of those who were released from New York state prisons and entered homeless shelters later did so within the first 30 days. The Illinois Returning Home study found that 5 percent of respondents slept at a shelter their first night out of prison (La Vigne, Visher, and Castro 2004).

In short, about 10 percent of the population coming into prisons has recently been homeless, and at least the same percentage of those who leave prisons end up homeless, at least for some period of time. Those with a history of mental illness are even more likely to be homeless. The BJS study examining homelessness before incarceration found that the level of homelessness for inmates who were mentally ill was 20 percent (Ditton 1999). The Metraux and Culhane study of New York parolees (2004) found that individuals with links to the mental health system had considerably higher proportions of shelter stays after release than those without such links.

Research also indicates that parole violation and re-arrest may be more likely among those prisoners who have no place to go when they are released or who have difficulty finding a permanent residence. An exploratory study by the Vera Institute of Justice, which followed 49 individuals released from New York State prisons and city jails, found that those individuals living in temporary shelters upon release had more difficulty resisting drugs and finding jobs.

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