Break the System: “More Homes, Less Jails.” (Part#3)
Throughout the United States, poverty is criminalized. Along with Federal Job Guarantee and Universal Basic Income, it is imperative that all individuals, regardless of their net worth, occupation or past, have a safe, quality home to reside in.
It is certainly no secret that houseless individuals face many barriers, including often being targeted and harassed by the current criminal justice system, solely for existing as houseless people. In many ways, poverty is criminalized. According to Sara Rankin’s Punishing Homelessness (2019), Black Americans, only 13% of the population, represent 40% of the houseless population, where as Latinx folks represent 16.9%. In total, 68% of the nation’s houseless population are people of color. Rankin refers to the United States prison system as “the nation’s largest homeless shelter” due to the fact that houselessness, in and of itself, is a major risk factor to incarceration.
“Over 15% of those in jail were homeless prior to incarceration, a rate of 7.5 to 11.3 times higher than the general adult population. Approximately 25–50% of the general homeless population has a criminal history, oftentimes sparked by arrests for non-violent offenses associated with homelessness, such as camping or begging (Rankin, 2019).”
Psychiatric disorders also impact many who experience houselesness, by at least 30 to 40%, according to Rankin. Additional trauma is implicated by the mere experience of houselessness, as Rankin states houseless individuals face lack of healthcare access and food insecurity on top of any existing ailments. Public policy, often at the county or municipal level, make it very easy to be targeted by law enforcement for attempting to meet basic needs. Houseless people can expect fines, harassment or being jailed for seeking shelter from the weather, asking for money or food, loitering or trespassing. Further, when they receive fines, they are likely not able to meet the financial obligation and/or appear in court, resulting in further criminal penalties for failing to appear. Developing a criminal record often does make it impossible to access additional resources, only rendering the houseless more chronically houseless.
Thus, one step to reducing crime is to make it NOT illegal to exist outside of the confines of home.
Housing First is a concept in which the solutions and byproducts of houselessness are resolved by providing adequate, full-time shelter to those experiencing houselessness. According to Housing First Reduces Reoffending Among Formerly Homeless Adults with Mental Disorders by Julian Somers and colleagues (2013),
“The results of our experiment demonstrate that HF produces significant reductions in reconvictions compared to usual care. People who are both homeless and mentally ill are frequently in contact with the justice system, a process that is both destabilizing to the individual and costly to society. The advent of HF has been shown to improve housing stability and health service involvement. Our results extend the benefits of HF by showing improvements in public safety and reductions in crime.”
The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) in Seattle, Washington is an integrated services provider, which provides crisis intervention, housing, emergency shelter and healthcare to the houseless and formerly houseless population, according to their website. In a March 2019 blurb titled Housing first and the Criminal Justice System, the DESC refers to the City’s criminal justice system and the streets/emergency shelters sharing a “revolving door”. In an op-ed by Daniel Malone, Executive Director of the DESC:
“At DESC, we believe in treatment for behavioral health conditions like mental illness and addiction so much that we are licensed to provide it, and it constitutes half of all the work we do. But what we have learned in doing it for so long is that it works a lot better when we are able to first get someone into stable, permanent housing. The stress of homelessness is a real detriment to treatment effectiveness, even when a person has a temporary place to be indoors. Feeling long-term security is a necessary condition for making the most out of treatment.
An example is Marvin, a man who lived outdoors for many years suffering from voices in his head, clothes disintegrating off his body, malnourishment, and open wounds on his arms and legs. He cycled between the streets and hospitals until finally accepting permanent supportive housing thanks to the dedication of outreach workers. Once housed, Marvin began to welcome the mental-health care and other services he had rejected on the streets. His psychiatric symptoms decreased, he reconnected with family, and he has achieved the longest period of stability in his life.”
It is also important to understand that housing first does not mean housing only, according to Malone. Housing is just one intervention, when combined with other services, that can lay the groundwork for long-term care.
Kimberly Burrowes writes Can Housing Interventions Reduce Incarceration and Recidivism? In 2019. One intervention she suggests is decriminalizing houselessness, which of course we discussed earlier the laws involved in that situation. In and of itself, this will reduce the number of people interacting with the costly criminal justice system in the first place. It has been shown that those with stable housing have fewer recorded non-violent offenses, according to Burrowes, as housing reduces survival crimes such as trespassing, theft and robbery, among others. For houseless youth, violating curfews is another factor that can land them in jail. According to Burrowes, for this to be successful, housing alone will not suffice, it must be quality housing. This means homes in good repair and absent severe safety hazards or unsanitary conditions. Burrowes goes on to show that going to jail alone can serve as a barrier to gaining adequate, stable housing. Formerly incarcerated people are 10x more likely to become houseless when compared to the general public. Property managers have a tendency to discriminate against those who have criminal records.
When Milwaukee, Wisconsin implemented a housing first initiative, they saw a decrease in municipal level violations, according to Burrowes, by 82% and the reduction of houselessness overall.
Housing First implementation has many societal benefits to consider. According to Implementing Housing First with Families and Young adults by Cyleste Collins and colleagues (2019), the successful implementation has shown that 79% of the families and young adults in a Housing First pilot program avoided needing transitional shelter again. The participants saw less exposure to the child welfare department and a decrease in case management overall.
How can this be implemented? Here’s one guide: https://endhomelessness.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/adopting-a-housing-first-approach.pdf