There is growing anxiety about how to house the large number of ex-offenders being released from state and federal prison each year, over 600,000 annually. Many of these individuals experience rejection from families and friends, refusal by private landlords and intensive screening (and eviction) from public housing. As a result, the burden of housing ex-offenders increasingly falls upon the shoulders of ill-prepared nonprofit 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.
There are several types of nonprofits that are involved in housing ex-offenders. This is largely a function of their mission: either to serve this population directly (or indirectly), and/or to serve the poor, urban communities that many ex-offenders call home.
Prisoner aid organizations are very familiar with the needs of offenders and have long histories of serving them and advocating on their behalf. They have significant strengths in service provision – such as employment training and placement, drug treatment and mental health care – but face a steep learning curve in housing development and management.
Special needs providers serve the homeless, mentally ill, physically frail and others requiring intensive services. More and more, they are facing growing numbers of ex-offenders within these traditional target populations. While they have substantial track records in providing services and emergency housing and growing experience with transitional housing, they are weak in permanent housing solutions and in understanding the specific needs of ex-offenders. These providers often rely on shrinking federal homeless dollars or welfare receipts to cover their operating expenses; ex-offenders are often ineligible for both. Special needs groups also need to maintain a low profile in their communities to protect the privacy of their facilities and clients – something that may be jeopardized if they begin targeting services specifically to ex-offenders.
Community-based housing developers are the affordable housing providers in many of the communities that ex-offenders call home, yet these nonprofits have been slow to serve them. Most simply do not have the capacity and know-how to reach out to this growing population, especially in the areas of service provision and supportive housing development and management. Since many are dependent on the city’s good favor for land, buildings and development funding, few are willing to adopt a politically charged agenda of intentionally serving ex-offenders.
Challenges to Reentry
Even if funds were readily available and organizations had the skills it takes to build and/or manage reentry housing, local opposition poses a continual problem to siting facilities. Even within ex-offender home communities, fear of increased crime and decreased property values keep potential neighbors from wanting to house ex-offenders in their backyard. This has driven many local governments to legally prohibit arrangements most conducive to reentry housing by zoning out multifamily buildings, group living facilities and/or social services. Furthermore, strong redevelopment pressures within gentrifying cities make it difficult to access land and site facilities. Government has little motivation to cooperate with nonprofits serving ex-offender populations when private developers are clamoring for permits for projects that will bring upper-income residents and businesses into historically declining urban cores.
Despite the numerous challenges, new reentry housing programs are slowly emerging. Yet even within the few that currently exist, there are numerous differences reflecting the multiple factors to consider in designing such a program. First, deciding whom your facility will serve can be quite challenging. For the sake of overcoming community objections, organizations often minimize risk by targeting ex-offenders they believe present the least threat to public safety. For some, that means individuals who committed one-time “crimes of passion” and are least likely to repeat the offense. Others choose to serve only nonviolent offenders, such as drug offenders, who may be viewed as less of a threat by a sympathetic community, even though they are more likely to re-offend.
Another low-risk strategy is targeting parolees who have a built-in, structured accountability system. These strategies, however, tend to exclude the ex-offenders most difficult to serve: those with co-occurring addictions and mental and physical health needs. (Sex offenders and arsonists pose additional public safety problems.) Some argue that these individuals should be the ones who receive support because they need the most help in order to succeed, and because they pose the greatest threat and cost to society.
The history of low-income and special needs housing in the United States is one of concentrating large numbers of units in a small number of disadvantaged communities. This approach is no longer considered viable and has been supplanted by a scattered site model supporting low density, low profile developments. Centralized facilities may be easier to operate and supervise, but are both highly visible and difficult to finance and develop. However, it can be more difficult to provide services, supervision and structure to a more dispersed population, which requires programs to be easily accessible to a wide geographic area or focused on in-home service provision.
Determining what type of reentry housing to provide is another factor to consider, as many of these programs operate with varying levels of structure and flexibility. Emergency housing is for individuals who have no place to go upon their release, and is mostly provided by an overburdened shelter system. Transitional housing, also called “phased permanent,” “transpermanent” or “interim” housing, provides short-term residence and treatment services. Permanent housing teaches complete self-sufficiency and provides a permanent supportive environment for those who need lifelong care. Some reentry housing models, such as St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago and The Fortune Academy in New York City, have successfully incorporated more than one type of housing within the same facility or program.
An Emerging Success
The Fortune Society is a prisoner aid organization that has served offenders in New York City since 1967. When a strategic planning process revealed that the organization was losing clients to the streets and prisons due to a lack of housing alternatives, management decided to provide housing themselves. Lacking real estate and housing experience, they hired consultants to help them identify and redevelop a building in West Harlem. After purchasing the building, they began a vigorous campaign to build community support and financial resources for the facility now known as The Fortune Academy, or “The Castle.”
A large part of the Academy’s initial success stems from intense community involvement. Staff regularly attend community meetings, have an open door policy for neighborhood residents to observe their programs and even provide the executive director’s cell phone number to key community leaders for instant access. (Other community outreach activities include hosting a Haunted Castle at Halloween and welcoming neighbors to backyard barbecues.) When they admitted a “controversial” resident, they found that “the level of [community] support that we’ve gotten has been quite wonderful,” according to Executive Director JoAnne Page.
Funding for The Fortune Academy has been strategically pieced together to allow for maximum program flexibility. In order to admit anyone who needs one of their 18 emergency and 41 phased-permanent beds, they have rejected funds that would have prohibited them from running their program the way they wanted. Financing from Low Income Housing and Historic Preservation Tax Credits, the New York State Homeless Housing and Assistance Program and a capital campaign covered the nearly $7.7 million construction costs. Their operating funds, about $1.2 million annually, come primarily from tenant rents and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs such as Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS and Shelter Plus Care.
In terms of entrance criteria, the Academy accepts anyone who agrees to be employed, in treatment and/or in school for 35 hours per week and who does not pose a “present threat of danger.” Everyone is initially placed in emergency housing, and can then transition into phased-permanent units when space becomes available – if they have proven themselves to be both motivated and non-threatening. All residents have access to personalized services and treatment. Those who transition into permanent housing are assisted through the Academy’s staff and counselors who have built an informal network of landlord relationships. An annual graduation ceremony celebrates those who successfully complete their customized care plans. When Academy residents do finally move on, goodbyes are not forever. As one staff person and former Fortune client states, “you are still a Fortune client no matter where you are, how far or how long you’ve been away. You can always come back.”
As more organizations and funders rise to the challenge, reentry housing will become easier to provide and more readily available. Best practices will include more than just a handful of pilot programs, and more organizations will perfect the art of housing and serving ex-offenders with their requisite needs and struggles. Until then, the burden remains on those who care to convince neighborhoods and government that ex-offenders are returning home, and they can either return to the streets and crime or to safe, stable, affordable housing that paves the way to a brighter future.