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.

Who will help that man?

It’s amazing what we learn to walk past in big-city (North) America.

Almost fifteen years ago, we took my daughters on a Toronto vacation. They were very young. The city I wanted to show them was the beautiful, somewhat imaginary place I remember from my own youth. In my mind’s eye, Toronto remains a squeaky-clean and safe counterpoint to gritty Rochester, Buffalo, and New York. This image was never fully accurate, even decades ago. Certainly today, Toronto faces every American urban challenge that doesn’t involve handguns.

We walked out of our fancy hotel for sightseeing—and immediately encountered a homeless man sprawled on the sidewalk. He was sitting on a dirty blanket. He was wet and cold on a blustery morning. With the stabbing innocence of a six-year-old, my daughter asked: “Who will help that man?” I stammered some crummy answer I’ve now forgotten. We were out-of-towners. He was right outside a major hotel in plain view of police and others. We didn’t know his story. We had places to go, sights to see. What else could we really do? We moved on.

Just last week, I attended the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco. I love that city, perhaps the most beautiful and prosperous urban jewel America has to offer. It also has an amazing number of homeless people, many of whom lay under blankets right outside the doorways of internet start-ups and fancy condos.

This Saturday, I was walking up Powell Street, headed to a fancy expensed lunch. I encountered this man. Yeah, it was a start.


“Are you ok?” I asked.

A head popped up. A man smiled. “Yes, I’m fine.” His hair was knotted, and he was dirty. But he was happy and alert. He didn’t seem drunk, immediately ill, or high.

I asked if he was hungry. Could I get him anything? Did he want a sandwich? Nope. He just wanted to nap on the warm sidewalk. We talked for a few moments. Satisfied that he was immediately ok, I moved on.

Fifteen minutes later, I ordered a $15 chicken sandwich. There was a touch too much pesto. That’s not the way I like it.

A Hand Outstretched into the Cold Night

I had an long and interesting discussion yesterday with Maia Szalavitz about public health approaches to addiction (Her full article is here). One question we kicked around is why extremely troubled street drug users sometimes make dramatic positive changes in their behavior when they come into contact with a needle exchange site or a mobile methadone van or a Salvation Army treatment program.

Mark Kleiman and I have gone back and forth on this many times, with each of us leaning toward different explanations.

Mark emphasizes the role of self-command in behavior change. His hypothesis: People who feel defeated by life at every turn gain confidence when they are taught a masterable skill (e.g., how to clean a needle to prevent HIV infection). When they thereby come to understand that they are not utterly hopeless and incompetent, they feel more confident that they can engage in other positive behaviors that have previously intimidated them (e.g., finding a place to live, enrolling in a methadone maintenance program).

Mark’s theory is entirely plausible, but I tend to lean towards a different view. People are more prone to take care of themselves if they think that others care about them. If you are using drugs and sleeping rough, you can go through long periods where no one expresses any feelings toward you other than contempt, disgust or hostility. In contrast, when a stranger stretches an open hand into the cold night and offers to help you, it communicates something markedly different: You have worth. Knowing that you are not worthless after all provides a motivation to try to make changes that will improve your health and well-being.

Mark’s theory focuses on how people change (the mechanism), mine focuses on why they do (the motivation). Both explanations could be true, or more or less true for different sorts of people. They could also of course both be wrong, but that would in no way diminish my admiration for those people who, night after chilly night, extend their hand to those in dire need.

One homeless girl

My take on the New York Times’ homelessness series.

My latest wonkblog column explores homelessness issues:

My first foray into social services was as a night volunteer in a homeless shelter. I particularly remember one bright and vivacious 12-year-old girl. The two of us sometimes talked during dinner. As we talked, her little brother would buzz around us, using language and gestures more suited to the Navy than to his preschool. Her parents were puzzlingly limited. I would sometimes help them with simple tasks such as assembling their children’s Christmas toys. They angered easily, with predictable results. In the middle of all this family chaos was this calm and resilient young girl. She made me a fantastic playful picture depicting a punked-out teenager with multiple piercings. I had no idea how to help her.

I thought about her as I read the initial installments of Andrea Elliott’s amazing, heartbreaking New York Times profile of another middle-schooler named Dasani, who lives in a homeless shelter called Auburn Family Residence, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section. Dasani shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and her seven siblings. She’s one of 280 children in this huge and forbidding structure. I don’t know that we’re sure how to help her, either… (more here).

Space prevented me from exploring one other issue: the simple role of bad luck. Dasani’s story includes savage turns of fate that so easily might have turned out differently. I’m tempted to dismiss the importance of bad luck. Families living near the water line have a way of conspiring in their own misfortune. If Chanel wasn’t arrested on one day, she might easily have been arrested on another occasion—for example the day she shoplifted Dasani’s birthday cake.

But bad luck does actually matter. The worst twist of fate concerned Chanel’s mother, Dasani’s grandmother, Joanie. Stably employed as a municipal worker after her own struggles with addiction. Joanie provided one of the very few sources of personal and financial stability in Dasani’s life. When this indispensable woman died of leukemia at age 55, her family never really recovered. “Why did she have to go away so quickly?” Dasani asked. I found myself asking the same question.