May 5, 2010

Reentry & Housing Forum:The Cliff Notes

Today's Harlem Reentry & Public Safety Forum hosted by The Fortune Society and the Prisoner Reentry Institute in partnership with the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, addressed the social, legal, and systemic barriers to housing facing individuals transitioning from jail/prison back into the community.

Mr. George Nashak, Deputy Commissioner of Adult Services, NYC Department of Homeless Services, began the the panel by offering a snapshot of homelessness in New York City. Last night, he said, 36,000 individuals spent the night in a homeless shelter. Every year, approximately 6% of the 100,000 individuals released from Rikers, and another 5-6% of the 67,000 released from state prison, enter the shelter system. Although a chronically homeless person who cycles in and out of the jail system costs the state $100,000 or more a year, it costs only $25,000 a year to provide them the with the "Taj Mahal of supportive housing."

Despite the cost of housing people in jails and prisons and evidence that individuals with stable housing are much less likely to reoffend, both Mr. Nashak and fellow panelist, Ryan Moser, Associate Director of NY Corporation for Supportive Housing explained that both supportive housing and private housing are more difficult to access for reentrants than for the general population. For instance, while individuals who are homeless and have psychiatric illnesses are frequently eligible for supportive housing, someone who has lived in prison for thirty years and has no home to return to upon release, but had a home prior to incarceration, does not meet the "homelessness" criteria for supportive housing. Mr. Moser also explained that those reentrants who were homeless prior to incarceration are often found ineligible for supportive housing because they cannot provide evidence of a history of homelessness. Mr. Moser further noted that private housing is also quite difficult to access for reentrants as private landlords can legally discriminate against individuals with criminal records.

Evelyn Malavé, Legal Assistant at the Legal Action Center, addressed the statutory barriers to accessing public housing for individuals with a criminal record. She explained that there are only two types of legal statuses that create an absolute bar to NYCHA housing, those subject to lifetime sex offender registry and those convicted of methamphetamine production. Other crimes often result in disqualification from public housing for a period of years. However, Ms. Malave explained that a NYCHA applicant can appeal a finding of disqualification by showing evidence of rehabilitation. For more information on how to represent yourself or someone else in an appeal, download the Legal Action Center's "How to Get Section 8 or Public Housing Even with a Criminal Record" guide.

Lastly, Mr. Howard Hughes, an employee and former resident of the Fortune Society, spoke of the challenges he faced looking for a home after leaving prison. He described walking up and down the streets of Harlem trying to convince landlords to rent him an apartment only to be rejected because of his record. After 94 days of searching, a pastor finally found him an apartment. "It is unspeakable, how it feels live in a place without anyone telling you what to do. To be on your be embraced slowly," he said. The Fortune Society's housing for formerly incarcerated individuals does just that- embraces individuals who have been rejected by other facilities. However, as Ms.JoAnne Page, CEO of Fortune Society described, getting community support for Fortune Society's housing was quite a challenge at first. "Our neighbors initially saw it as a public safety risk, the community was scared. But when they realized that our housing actually made people safer, the people who opposed the housing units became our staunchest advocates.” The Fortune Society has recently built a new affordable housing complex at 625 West 140th and is currently accepting applications. They are also in the process of creating a toolkit to help other organizations develop housing options for reentrants.

Thanks to all the panelists and attendees for making the forum a huge success! A special thanks to Councilman Robert Jackson for his attendance and support.