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Housing Shortages for Ex-Offenders

Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.

~ Robert Frost

The greatest increase in United States government subsidized housing for more than a decade has come in the form of prison cells. America has been on a prison building spree, nearly doubling the number of people held behind bars, since 1990. Almost 2 million people were locked up at the federal, state or local level as of June 2001. A record number of prisoners also means a record number of ex-prisoners returning to towns and neighborhoods.

They are coming out in enormous numbers. there is growing anxiety about how to house the large number of ex-offenders being released from state and federal prison each year. Many of these individuals experience rejection from families and friends to live with them, refusal by private landlords, and intensive screening (and eviction) from public housing.

For tens of thousands of these former inmates, the question of where they will live is an immediate and critical one, and has important consequences for society at large. Most ex-offenders return to families or friends in their old neighborhoods. Often this is the environment that helped them get in trouble in the first place. Others are no longer welcome at home or don't want to return. They come out of prison and they've got a bus ticket and gate money, which is about $50 - $90.

In addition, they don't have a job so they can't afford first and last's month rent -- usually a large sum. They drift from one homeless shelter to the couch of a friend or to a low-rent hotel. Many cannot return home because offenders convicted of drug crimes are banned from public housing.

There are no state or federal laws designed to help ex-offenders obtain housing. On the contrary, federal laws allow public housing agencies o deny eligibility to almost anyone with a criminal background. Additionally, private landlords have discretion in selecting tenants to live in their dwelling units. They cannot discriminate against protected classes (i.e., based on race, ethnicity or religion). Ex-offenders are not a protected class.

The burden of housing ex-offenders falls upon the shoulders of ill-prepared non-profit organizations. Many are scrambling to figure out how to keep ex-offenders off the streets, out of shelters and prisons, and on the road to a better life.

If offenders are going to be successful, transitional housing that combines a place to stay with other services, such as drug treatment and job counseling, are key elements in helping ex-offenders re-establish themselves in society. Greater resources must be dedicated to these types of programs.

Reginald Hines

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