Formerly incarcerated people living in the United States are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. Transitioning back into society can be extremely difficult after currently being incarcerated. Many need to address health problems, learn new skills, and find steady jobs. Before they can do all that, formerly incarcerated people need proper housing. Often, this is not an easy task. So, ultimately, people who experience cycles of incarceration and release, also known as the “revolving door” of incarceration, are much more likely to experience homelessness.
Transition can be harder for those with mental health or addiction issues. Without proper housing, it is not only more difficult to find and maintain employment, but also to find and receive treatment for mental health and addiction issues. Left without proper help for these issues, the risk for recidivism increases.
People who have been incarcerated at least once have higher rates of experiencing homelessness than the general public. Those who have been incarcerated more than once are 13 times more likely to become homeless, making them twice as likely to experience homelessness than those who are returning from their first prison term.
Unfortunately, being unhoused makes formerly incarcerated people more likely to be arrested or incarcerated again. This is in huge part to policies and laws that often criminalize the homeless population. “Offenses” such as sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, and public urination are low level offenses that can put people back into the prison system.
After arrest, people who are unhoused are less likely to appear in court or pay fines connected to their arrest due to lack of transportation, financial instability, and inability to maintain a stable address. This can also lead individuals experiencing homelessness back into the system, which is ultimately criminalizing poverty and homelessness.
Arresting, fining, or jailing people who are unhoused for small acts in which is often the only choice for survival is not only cruel, but it also funnels formerly incarcerated people back into the “revolving door,” which reduces the chances of success in reentry and puts public safety at risk.
Many may believe that policing the homeless population is critical in maintaining public safety, but this is ineffective and can ultimately do more harm than good. To truly help the general public and those who are homeless, focusing on shelter first initiatives not only helps solve this housing crisis, it also helps the public feel that their safety is prioritized.
While ending the criminalization of homelessness is a vital step in this issue, it is also important that states set up coordinating centers to help ensure that people leaving prison can have access to and find both short term and permanent housing, as well as receive financial support.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, states like Utah have made permanent housing for the chronically homeless a priority within their budget. This housing first approach acknowledges that a stable home for those formerly incarcerated are necessary before they can address finding employment, mental health issues, substance abuse, and other issues. Housing first initiatives and reforms, as well as expanded social services, can help address the never ending revolving door of incarceration.