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How do we address housing needs of ex-offenders?

This week is National Re-entry Week, making it a good time to focus on the important role housing plays for people exiting the criminal justice system. For an individual leaving prison or jail, access to safe and affordable housing is vital to their successful re-entry into the community. Without access to affordable housing, ex-offenders are at great risk of homelessness and recidivism. Individuals with criminal histories face many challenges to access affordable housing, from the insufficient supply to exclusion by landlords and federal programs. In thinking about this issue, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the magnitude of the ex-offender population and trends:

  • Between 70 million and 100 million Americans have a criminal record.
  • Over 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons; approximately 700,000 individuals are in jail.
  • Over 600,000 Americans exit federal and state prison annually; over 11 million individuals cycle through local jails each year.
  • Nearly 50,000 people a year enter homeless shelters immediately upon release from correctional facilities.
  • Risk of recidivism greatly declines after an individual with a nonviolent conviction has remained crime free for 3-4 years; their risk of recidivism becomes equal to the general population’s risk of arrest.

Some housing providers have been thinking about how we can serve this large population with criminal histories effectively. Given recent public housing and fair housing guidance from HUD and Congress’ efforts to tackle criminal justice reform, understanding how to serve this population is particularly relevant. It is also challenging because understanding how to evaluate a person’s criminal history is complex.

A person develops a criminal record upon being arrested, even if not criminally charged. This arrest record can then become a barrier to federally assisted or privately owned housing. Arrests, criminal charges, convictions, misdemeanors, felonies, violent versus non-violent offenses — all of these factors illustrate why treating every individual with a criminal history the same is problematic. It also illustrates the complexity of criminal histories and the challenge in providing housing to serve this population. Here are four examples of possible approaches:

  • CSH has been developing the FUSE model in a number of jurisdictions. This program, the Frequent User Service Enhancement (FUSE) program began in New York City, providing supportive housing to people with higher use of the shelter and criminal justice systems. After 12 months, 91 percent of FUSE participants were still housed, compared to 28 percent of the comparison group. They also spent 19 fewer days incarcerated, a 40 percent reduction over the comparison group.
  • Salt Lake County Utah and its Public Housing Authority created a program to help people with special needs secure housing using HOME funds. This Homeless Assistance Rental Project provides housing placement services and rental assistance to individuals with a criminal history and people waiting for release from mental health or substance abuse treatment centers. The program also ensures landlords against damages or eviction proceedings. Salt Lake County expanded the program after its first year because of its success.
  • New York City Housing Authority is piloting a family reunification program. This two year pilot will work with 150 former inmates that have been released from prison in the last 3 years. These inmates will receive supportive reentry services while living with their family in a public housing unit; upon successful completion of the program, they will be added to their family’s lease and permanently allowed to remain with their family.
  • Communities are also exploring landlord risk mitigation funds to help encourage private landlords to rent to tenants with criminal histories.


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