Finding Home Again
When the formerly incarcerated take their first steps outside the prison walls, we have already seen that they have enormous obstacles finding stable employment. Now add to that the significant barriers to finding a place to live. Not only can they not afford anywhere to live without a job, but most housing is virtually unavailable to them. Discrimination in public and private housing alike is perfectly legal, and quite prevalent.
Beginning in the 1980s with President Reagan and the War on Drugs and continuing into the 1990s with President Clinton’s “tough on crime” capitulation, public housing laws and policies increasingly allowed for legal discrimination against people with criminal records. Today, public housing agencies enforce policies that exclude applicants and evict tenants with even the most minor criminal backgrounds. Not just the formerly incarcerated and ones with criminal records are excluded. Public housing agencies can even bar people with only arrests and those simply believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol. These harsh exclusionary practices led the Human Rights Watch to declare, “Just about any offense will do, even if it bears scant relation to the likelihood the applicant will be a good tenant.” *see No Second Chance: People with Criminal Records Denied Access to Public Housing, p. 46. This is a fantastic resource about the denial of housing.
“No-fault” clauses may be the most controversial and unfair. The “One Strike and You’re Out” policy (this is President Clinton’s baby) requires every public housing lease to stipulate that if the tenant, or any member of the tenant’s household or any guest of the tenant, engages in any drug-related or other criminal activity on or off the premises, the tenancy will be terminated. Knowledge of or participation in the illegal activity is no longer required. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “no-fault” clause because the eviction of innocent tenants was inconsistent with the legislative scheme. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed. The “legality” of discrimination runs deep indeed.
So according to the U.S. Supreme Court, people can be tossed out of their homes due to no fault of their own. William Lee and Barbara Hill, evicted because their grandsons smoked marijuana in a parking lot near their apartments. Herman Walker, evicted after police found cocaine on his caregiver. Perlie Rucker, evicted following her daughter’s arrest for possession of cocaine several blocks from her home.
As a result of these fears of “no-fault” policies, thousands of the formerly incarcerated end up homeless. Vulnerable families have nowhere else to go if not public housing, so they exclude even their own kin who return from prison. A McCormick Institute of Public Affairs study found that nearly a quarter of the guests in homeless shelters had been incarcerated within the previous year. In California a study estimated that 30-50% of individuals under parole supervision in San Francisco and Los Angeles were homeless. *see Preventing Parolee Failure Program: An Evaluation
Yet, research shows that supportive housing for returning citizens substantially increases the likelihood a person with a criminal record will obtain and retain employment and remain drug- and crime-free. The use of state prisons and city/county jails will decrease if we provide stable housing to people with criminal records.
Access to decent, stable, and affordable housing is a basic human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. However, in the U.S. this basic human right can be and is consistently denied to people simply looking for a second chance. “I’m trying to do the right thing; I deserve a chance,” declares a forty-one-year-old African American mother after being denied housing because of a single arrest four years prior. “Even if I was the worst criminal, I deserve a chance. Everybody deserves a chance.” *see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 148, quoting No Second Chance, p. i.
“…but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 8:20.
Jesus knew, and God knows, what it is like to have no home. Do we? And if we choose to follow this criminal, homeless, poor Jesus, how will we respond when our eyes are opened to the truth?