Homelessness and Incarceration

homelessness, mass incarceration

In the United States, ex-prisoners are more vulnerable to homelessness than those who have not been incarcerated.  According to a report published by the Vera Institute of Justice, 30-50% of all people under parole supervision in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco are homeless.  The authors of the report, Nino Rodriguez and Brenner Brown, note that there are “…three main factors [that] contribute to and complicate homelessness among people leaving prison. First, ex-offenders face the same social and economic conditions that lead to homelessness among the general population. Ex- offenders returning to the community also confront barriers to housing associated with their criminal justice system involvement. Finally, there is a lack of ownership of the problem among government agencies and community organizations.” (The report can be found at: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/vera/209_407.pdf).

Ex-offenders, especially those with felony charges on their records, face barriers when trying to secure housing and employment.  BAN THE BOX is an organization campaigning to end employment discrimination against those who have been convicted or imprisoned by abolishing the box on employment applications that asks job seekers to disclose any past convictions.

In addition, according  to a report by the Wall Street Journal, most ex-convicts are STILL unable to live in public housing after their release from prison due to archaic rules established in the 1990s.  The War on Drugs gave birth to federal rules that do not allow former criminals with specific drug charges (for example producing methamphetamines) to reside in public housing.  Many local housing authorities and states impose additional restrictions on public housing applicants.  These rules lead to the exclusion of ex-prisoners from public housing.  For more on the relationship between mass incarceration and homelessness, check out Dr. Michelle Alexander’s exceptional book, The New Jim Crow (2012).

People who are experiencing homeless are more likely to be arrested or re-arrested.  In a 2002 ethnographic study of incarceration rates of homeless men in San Francisco and St. Louis, researcher Teresa Gowan found that: “…crimes of desperation, aggressive policing of status offenses, and the close proximity of many ex-cons created a strong likelihood of incarceration and re-incarceration. Conversely, for jail and prison inmates, time inside consistently eroded employability, family ties,and other defences against homelessness: several of the men had become homeless for the first time directly following release from a carceral establishment…each trajectory reinforced the other, creating a homelessness/incarceration cycle more powerful than the sum of its parts, a racialized exclusion/punishment nexus which germinates, isolates, and perpetuates lower-class male marginality.”

The link between incarceration and homelessness is troubling.  There are many government and non-government agencies and organizations working to assist ex-prisoners in securing housing, employment, and supportive services.  Project Greenlight in New York, COMPASS in Rhode Island, and Tennessee Bridges in Tennessee are three of the many organizations across the country trying to implement innovative approaches to decreasing homelessness for ex-prisoners.


News Update: Mayor Garcetti Will Not Enforce Restrictive Ordinances on Homeless Residents of Los Angeles

homelessness, Los Angeles

Eric Garcetti addresses a crowd with Amy Elaine Wakeland at the Los Angeles Missions’s Annual Thanksgiving for the Homeless

As the last night of June 2015 drew to a close, Mayor Eric Garcetti revoked his support for the new ordinances (passed by the Los Angeles City Council last week) that would criminalize people experiencing homelessness and trample on their property rights.  In a statement, Garcetti said: “I strongly support the enactment of laws that enable the City to ensure that its public areas are clean and safe. However, the City must balance the need to maintain its sidewalks with the rights of the people who have no other choice but to live on them….[we need] smarter law enforcement, more compassionate treatment of homeless Angelenos, and [to] strengthen the City’s ability to withstand legal challenge.”

Garcetti refused to sign the ordinance into law and returned the ordinance to the City Council for further consideration.

The failed ordinances directed police officers to remove the property of people experiencing homelessness from the streets of Los Angeles after only a 24 hour warning.  The items would then be “stored” or impounded by the city for at least 90 days.  The ordinances would have denied people experiencing homelessness access to their own belongings–including important legal documents, tents and sleeping materials, and items of personal value.  The ability to access one’s property is central those trying to survive on the streets of Los Angeles.

These ordinances dripped with cruelty and unconstitutionality. Luckily, Mayor Garcetti withdrew support before these abhorrent ordinances could destroy the property and decrease the citizenship rights of people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.

CLICK HERE to view a map that shows where people who are experiencing homelessness reside and survive in Los Angeles. The map was designed by the Los Angeles Times.

Honolulu Mayor Proposes Controversial Rules Regulating the lives of People Experiencing Homelessness on Waikiki


Honolulu Mayor Proposes Controversial Rules Regulating the lives of People Experiencing Homelessness on Waikiki

Click on the blue link above to read about Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s proposals to discourage homelessness in the Waikiki area.  Two new proposals by the mayor aim to prevent people experiencing homelessness from public urination and sitting on benches and in public walkways in the tourist area.  While the intent of the proposals seem good (Patty Witty-Oakland, Honolulu’s Director of Community Services, was quoted as saying: “We want to get folks to that point where they say, ‘OK, I’ve had enough. I’m ready’ to take the step to go to a shelter or to get the treatment that they need.”), these types of laws bring into question who counts as a citizen (with full rights afforded to citizens) and who deserves access to public spaces.  Laws such as the proposed bills in Honolulu show that we are still living in a society that very clearly favors the rights of people with homes and disposable income over people experiencing homelessness and those struggling with economic hardship.

In the article (click on the blue link above), published on June 16, 2014, journalist Gordon Y.K. Pang of the Honolulu Star Advertiser writes:  “Two new bills being proposed by Hono­­lulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell would give his administration further ammunition to conduct his ‘compassionate disruption’ campaign to remove the homeless from the sidewalks of Wai­­kiki…Violators would be warned before they are cited. Then they could be fined up to $500 and sentenced to as many as 30 days in jail.”  The jail time and fines seem ludicrous punishments for merely seeking places to rest, and it would be unrealistic to seek fines from people experiencing homelessness who already have little to no income.  (For more on inappropriate punishments, see NPR‘s series on debtor’s prisons’ and their negative effects on the poor at: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/21/313118629/supreme-court-ruling-not-enough-to-prevent-debtors-prisons).  The proposed ordinances are very discriminatory and classist in nature–would the mayor and his administration have a problem with middle and upper class citizens spending lengthy amounts of time on public benches and in public spaces in Honolulu?

These types of bills and “sit-lie” ordinances (as they are referred to in cities such as Seattle and Portland) should encourage Americans to reflect on how and why we place value on one other as people and as fellow citizens.  Is it really fair to limit access to public spaces based on someone’s housing, income, or mental health status?  And, is it accurate to frame the narrative of this political maneuver to discourage homelessness in Honolulu as “compassionate disruption” if the disruption is forced and infringes on the rights of those people experiencing homelessness?  It is not compassionate to kick homeless people out of public spaces because their presence makes others feel uncomfortable.