Homelessness After Prison or Jail: Housing First

Criminal justice reform offers ideas to housing policy; perhaps housing can return the favor.

Lowry’s posting suggested using the criminal justice notion of swift, certain and fair punishment to minimize evictions from public housing.   What about using the homelessness-prevention notion of “Housing First” in the criminal justice context?

It’s been clear for years that requiring homeless people to subdue their mental illness or kick their drug habits or otherwise become model citizens before being sheltered failed utterly to reduce their misbehavior but succeeded splendidly in increasing the duration of their exposure to the elements.  What a surprise: without a roof under which to sleep or a safe place to store one’s stuff, other life changes become damn near impossible.

The same logic should apply to any program of reentry from prison or jail: before discharging a prisoner, corrections officials should make sure that s/he has a place to live, and provide one (albeit minimal) if not.  In other words, treat people who are homeless because they’ve been locked up the same as people who are homeless for any other reason.  This means recognizing that, without a stable place to live, staying out of trouble with the law becomes one of those damn near impossible life changes.  And that’s without even considering the people incarcerated precisely because they’re homeless—because “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

It’s costly to provide housing.  But just as scholars and practitioners finally figured out that it was cheaper to house people than to keep shuttling them between the streets and the emergency rooms, I suspect we’ll soon find that it’s cheaper to house those who’ve made it out of the criminal justice system than it is to keep sending them back in.