"I'll be homeless and on the streets before I turn down one of my children for a place to stay," says an elderly woman in Chicago's Austin community. She lives in subsidized housing, and was told by the housing management program that her son could not live with her because of his prior convictions.
Frankie White, Prison Re-Entry Coordinator at Westside Health Authority addresses the challenges on a daily basis. As a counselor to ex-incarcerated people, she does her best to help them transition positively to the community, but the toughest problem continues to be housing. White points out the irony of spending money on rehabilitation, while not supporting the need for housing upon re-entry into the community.
"If we continue punishing formerly incarcerated individuals by preventing them from joining their families in subsidized housing, we're setting ourselves up for failure," contends White. "If we continue to strip our men of their purpose as role models, then how can they ever feel a sense of self-esteem? I feel this is one of the biggest reasons why youth in adult prisons have doubled in the past decade."
The CHA and Section 8 rules prohibit formerly incarcerated individuals from living with their families in subsidized housing under the following situations:• Sex offenders who are required for a lifetime registration program.• Those involved in the sale or production of methamphetamines in federally assisted housing
"Those are the only two absolute bans," says John Fallon, Program Manager of Prisoner Re-Entry at the Corporation for Supportive Housing. "Everything else can be at the discretion of the Housing Authority in the design of their Tenant Selection Plan."
According to Fallon, the tenant selection law gives individual public housing authorities the "right to discriminate." The result of this discrimination impacts both the formerly incarcerated people and their families. Typically, housing officials elect to enforce the ban which may relate to the spiraling rate of recidivism.
"Studies have shown that individuals with a stable place to live upon release from correctional settings are less likely to be re-incarcerated," continued Fallon. "About 10% of those released have severe mental illness, and 16% have mental health difficulties." Corrections have become the primary national mental health system, and the rate of recidivism for this group is extremely high. Thousands of people with chronic health problems cycle in and out of jail. Fallon explained that long-term intensive outreach services are needed in the home to break the cycle.
The repercussions of our current correctional system are alarming. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. At the start of 2008, one of out 99.1 adults in the United States were in prison. A report by the City of Chicago cites that over the last thirty years, the Illinois prison population has increased 300 percent.
Racial disparity for both men and women of African-American descent is also evident. About three times the number of African-American people is imprisoned compared with their Caucasian counterparts. That equals about one out of every ten African-American men. Nationally, there will be 672,000 releases from state and national prisons this year. Where will those people go who are denied access to subsidized housing?
Malcolm Young, Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, relates that thousands of people have been displaced since the tearing down of subsidized housing. According to the CHA Annual Plan for 2008, the family waiting list for CHA housing is 25,000 families, totaling 72,000 people. The senior waiting list is over 34,000 households, totaling 38,000. Unable to accommodate any more displaced people, CHA closed the waiting list for new applicants. Young acknowledges that when a formerly incarcerated man or women returns to society with no job, little money, and a family to support, the housing challenge presents a major hurdle towards establishing oneself into the community.
Paula Wolff, Co-chair of the Mayor's Policy Caucus On Prison Re-Entry explained the reasoning for the subsidized housing barriers.
"We're very supportive of prisoners going back to live with their families in public housing... as long as they're not a threat to public safety...The Department of Corrections, social service providers and the CHA have to work together to craft solutions for successful reentry from the day prisoners walk into prison. We need to equip them with skills to be able to get jobs or access to programs, and to deal with substance abuse or mental health issues as appropriate."
Frankie White commented on the psychological impact behind the discriminatory housing situation. "Being prevented from living with their family emasculates a man. The system is breaking apart the family. How will a man pay for two rents, support children, and take care of himself with a minimum wage job - if he gets a job?" White added that women are also traumatized by not being able to return to their children.
The benefits in removing housing barriers would extend to society and government. With mandated employment and accountability to parole, the ex-offender's potential to be a responsible contributor to society would be greater. The government could then collect 30% of two incomes rather than one, which saves money for taxpayers. The biggest benefit is restoring the foundation of a family, which could reduce recidivism.
"According to a Criminal Justice report," said White, "there will be about one million people released from prison by the year 2010. Are we ready for that?"
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