For too many, release from incarceration can mean continued hardship. Research indicates that there is a reciprocal relationship between incarceration and homelessness in which the likelihood of both experiences is heightened by the other. Experiencing incarceration exacerbates challenges in securing housing, increasing the likelihood of experiencing homelessness. And experiencing homelessness leaves one increasingly vulnerable to interactions with the criminal justice system, heightening the chance of arrest and effectively incarceration.
Relationship between incarceration & homelessness
In the US, people who have experienced incarceration are 10 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness. This relationship between incarceration and homelessness has disproportionate impacts for people of color, with Black men and women experiencing much higher rates of homelessness prior to and following incarceration. Incarceration increases the likelihood of homelessness due to heightened economic barriers, increased isolation in which support systems and services are strained or absent, and due to discriminatory policies and practices.
While experiencing incarceration creates additional barriers in securing housing, the state of being unhoused also increases one’s proximity to the criminal justice system. People who are unhoused are unfairly criminalized. Criminalization practices are facilitated through unjust laws and policies related to vagrancy. Some of these criminalized behaviors include panhandling, sleeping in public, loitering, and sidewalk sitting. People who are unhoused are not only more likely to engage in these actions or behavior, but they are also highly more likely to be policed for them due to racist and discriminatory practices. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s 2019 report “Housing not Handcuffs”, someone experiencing homelessness is up to 11 times more likely to be arrested than someone who is housed. Additionally, for offenses related to vagrancy, Black individuals are arrested at twice the rate of arrest for white individuals.
Housing & Incarceration in DC
In DC, securing housing after experiencing incarceration is a great challenge. Research from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s report on homelessness indicates that 57 percent of the 3,862 single adults experiencing homelessness in the District reported they have experienced incarceration. Additionally, 55 percent of these individuals reported that their experience of incarceration led to them being unhoused.
Those who have experienced incarceration often face the same challenges endured by the general population in securing housing, compiled with additional and unique challenges related to their involvement with the criminal justice system. One challenge being the location of incarceration, as DC residents are sent to federal prisons far away, making it increasingly difficult to maintain relationships with people that could help with housing needs upon return.
There are also significant economic barriers as the majority of people who are incarcerated are denied the ability to work, or paid low wages, typically between 12 cents and $1.15 per hour. Being unable to earn a sustainable wage prevents those who are incarcerated from saving, and effectively being able to afford security deposits or first month’s rent. Additionally, given increased barriers to employment related to incarceration, such as discriminatory practices and being isolated from job opportunities, it is incredibly challenging to secure employment after being incarcerated. DC’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,561/month, meaning a person would need to work 91 hours/week at a minimum wage job to afford rent.High rent prices in the District makes securing housing a great challenge, especially for individuals without a high school degree and access to higher paying employment opportunities. About one third of individuals returning from incarceration do not have a high school degree, making it disproportionately challenging to gain employment that allows one to afford the District’s high rent prices.
Discriminatory practices also threaten people returning from incarceration’s ability to find and maintain housing. Presently, poverty and homelessness are stigmatized as an “individual pathology” in which people are blamed for their situation, and this is particularly damaging for unhoused people as they are in the public view and subject to public persecution. Staff in DC that work with formerly incarcerated individuals report that the individuals they work with regularly experience discrimination when applying for housing.
Working towards making affordable housing accessible to those who have experienced incarceration needs to be a priority. Kate Coventry, author of the DCFPI report, asserts that based on their research “everyone agreed that housing is both the most important need and the biggest challenge”. Given the reciprocal relationship between incarceration and homelessness,, securing a stable home is vital in combating the likelihood of rearrest and reincarceration. Additionally, being unable to secure housing can sometimes prevent individuals from being approved for discretionary release from prison, forcing individuals to spend more time incarcerated. Securing housing after experiencing incarceration is incredibly important in reducing recidivism, gaining employment, and supporting one’s physical and mental well-being. Making affordable housing a priority is an important and necessary step in alleviating the harms of incarceration and homelessness.