How to help people with criminal records get a fair chance at housing

Jayme Day, National Alliance to End Homelessness

People re-entering the community from prisons and jails are more likely to be excluded from housing because they have criminal records. Criminal records are also barriers to jobs. Without housing and employment many people re-entering the community are at risk of homelessness. And those who are experiencing homelessness with a criminal record can be homeless longer.

At the last Alliance conferencein Oakland, Calif., Jeff Olivet from The Center for Social Innovation spoke in a workshop about racism and homelessness. He made one of those statements you can’t forget. It went something like this –

Deinstitutionalization in the 1970s-on was a good thing. However, we were not ready with enough community supports when thousands of people were released, and as a result many people with mental illness became homeless. Now we are seeing criminal justice reform, another good thing, happen. This will mean greater numbers of people will be released from prisons and jails. We must be ready to integrate people with criminal records into our community or we will see the same dismal result.

Here are four things to be thinking about and ways you can help.

1. Ending housing discrimination

Twelve percent of the U.S. population is African American; however 40% of the population experiencing homelessness is African American. That’s a big difference. The criminal justice system disproportionately arrests and convicts people of color. Currently, many housing providers use criminal records as an excuse to say no to people of color seeking housing, whether purposely or inadvertently.

>> We need to recognize when criminal records are being used as an excuse to discriminate against people of color. We need to provide ways to make landlords our allies and provide legal means to address discrimination.

2. Connecting housing providers with re-entry providers

So far there is a lot of encouraging work on re-entry across the country. Specifically Second Chance Act providers and other campaigns such as the Stepping Up Initiative are trying to lower the number of people incarcerated and connect people re-entering the community with employment, benefits, family, treatment programs and other services they need to avoid returning to jail or prison.  These programs are also targeting chronically homeless people.

>> We need to take steps to connect these providers with housing and homeless service providers. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has created a tip sheet targeted to criminal justice related providers on how they can break the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.

3. Educating landlords and PHAs on criminal records

Another bright spot is the recent release of guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on housing and criminal records. One guidance document is directed to public housing authorities (PHA) and says PHAs may not use arrest records alone to deny housing. PHAs must take a holistic look at someone’s background before denying them housing. The second guidance document is directed landlords and says that use of criminal records to make housing decisions (who to rent to, who to evict) violates the Fair Housing Act if use of records results in housing disparities by race, national origin, or other protected class.

>> We need to make sure this guidance gets into the hands of landlords and public housing authorities and work with them to determine ways to lower barriers to housing including changing their screening criteria.  Here is a summary of the guidance to help with this process.

4. April 24 – 30th is Re-entry Week

Finally, this week is #ReentryWeek and we must use this opportunity to raise awareness. Use this as an opportunity to take stock of how well housing and criminal justice systems are connected and what you and your organizations can do to raise awareness and stop the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.

>> Help us raise awareness during #ReentryWeek by sharing the blog and linked documents on your websites and on social media.