Formerly incarcerated Virginians ten times more likely to face homelessness

Over 64,000 currently-incarcerated Virginians will be susceptible to housing insecurity when they are released

June 29, 2023 12:05 am

The Richmond City Justice Center in Shockoe Valley. (Wyatt Gordon/ Virginia Mercury)

Over the four and a half years that Shiri Yadlin worked as a housing coordinator for a D.C.-based church, she heard from her formerly incarcerated clients again and again about an abundance of barriers to securing permanent housing. After she began her current job as a senior program manager for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, she decided to conduct a landscape assessment of the issue that resulted in some shocking findings.

“Someone who has been incarcerated is ten times more likely to be homeless, and if you’ve been incarcerated more than once your chances double to be homeless,” she said. “It’s harder and harder to get out of homelessness, the more experience you have with incarceration.”

Susceptible to insecurity

In Virginia, where the incarceration rate exceeds the national average (which is already the highest in the world), 749 out of every 100,000 people are currently locked up in a jail, prison, immigrant detention or juvenile justice center. That translates to over 64,000 Virginians who will be susceptible to housing insecurity when they are released, not to mention the tens of thousands of others who have already served their time.

“This is a lot of people we are talking about here,” Yadlin added. “It’s not just a small subset of our population.”

In the ideological cradle of Massive Resistance, there is an unsurprising racial dynamic at play as well. Black Virginians are over four times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.  For juveniles, that figure is even higher, according to Yadlin.

“The system that has the most disparity is justice-involved youths,” said Yadlin. “Black children in the commonwealth are eight times more likely to have justice involvement than anyone else.”

Barrier barometer

Although Yadlin had heard that background checks can present a huge barrier to housing for formerly incarcerated individuals, she wanted to understand exactly how that process alienates and excludes people. To do that, she and her team analyzed the tenant selection plans for 123 properties across the commonwealth built using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, as such buildings have a higher likelihood of serving her target population.

After examining which convictions management companies screened for, how far they look back into individuals’ records for transgressions and the processes they use to select or deny potential tenants, Yadlin’s team found a plethora of problems.

While nearly every property screened potential tenants for violent offenses, a third of them also disqualified applicants for petty offenses such as loitering or trespassing that are often associated with periods of homelessness. All properties denied potential tenants for drug distribution, but half of them also dismissed applicants for simple possession.

Background check companies are supposed to calculate the lookback period on any felony or misdemeanor from the date which the crime was committed. However, all too frequently such firms count from the date a person was released from serving their sentence, making a long lookback period more punitive. 15 tenant selection plans had no lookback period for offenses but eight of them featured incredibly long lookback periods for both felonies and misdemeanors. Even more concerning: nine percent of all properties screened for arrests which imply no guilt.

When it comes to the application process, two of the biggest barriers result from properties not disclosing why a potential tenant was turned away and not offering an appeals process. A third of the sites Yadlin surveyed engaged in both practices. Increasing transparency in the application process could be an easy fix, if property owners and managers prove willing to implement it.

Although the problem is complex, the list of solutions proposed by the Corporation for Supportive Housing is straightforward: remove public nuisance and non-violent offenses from the screening process; offer notices of denial and an appeals process; and undertake a nuanced individual assessment, rather than throwing applicants out at the first red flag.

Just over half of the properties surveyed bothered to consider the circumstances around specific applicants’ cases. Without individual assessments, a teenager who had the cops called on them while experiencing a mental health crisis decades ago can appear just as suspect as an adult who committed robbery last year.

The science also bears out the wisdom behind not punishing people for offenses long past, according to Yadlin. “Any impact of a criminal record on your performance as a tenant disappears after five years for a felony and after two years for a misdemeanor,” she said.

Such findings are in alignment with guidance for landlords issued by Virginia Housing last year, which was designed to encourage more access for formerly incarcerated folks. Where the commonwealth has issued non-binding guidance, other jurisdictions have legislated.

Both New Jersey and Montgomery County, Maryland have passed laws to prevent landlords from denying people housing for petty offenses. Since both bills are relatively recent, advocates like Yadlin don’t yet have enough data to determine their efficacy, but they are hopeful.

Let the funding flow

As the founder and director of Where We Help, a Richmond-based supportive housing organization, Aisha Bullard has witnessed the struggles of individuals leaving incarceration from all sides. With just 70 short-term transitional housing beds and 32 long-term units that they lease out, Bullard and her team have helped over 3,100 people in D.C. and the commonwealth since she began her business in 2005.

Where more corporate landlords can be unforgiving, she has seen many mom and pop property owners offer folks second chances. Our housing system has a history of treating formerly incarcerated folks harshly, but marginalized people and good samaritans have forged their own networks that can be hard to capture in a survey, according to Bullard.

“People who have been justice-involved or who have had mental health issues, they have networks they are navigating that are more informal,” she said. “There are committed people trying to help this subset of the population by any means necessary, but I just don’t think enough of the money is headed to them.”

Many affordable housing providers in the nation do not rent units to people with any kind of criminal background, no matter their stated missions of “housing for all.” Even public housing — designed to serve as the shelter of last resort in the United States — will often turn away potential tenants with convictions.

To this day, the Department of Housing and Urban Development allows public housing authorities broad leeway to discriminate against justice-involved individuals. That doesn’t sit right with Bullard.

“HUD caused problems for decades [by] saying people with convictions couldn’t live in their units,” she said. “Serious money needs to be put in place to help those populations that were disparately impacted in the past. When you’re scoring people for [Low-Income Housing Tax] credits, you need to give some extra points for helping this population. It’s the economics that need to change in order for help to flow down to this group of people, and I haven’t heard a lot of the big affordable housing providers talk about it.”

Over her nearly 20 years in the transitional and supportive housing industry, some of Bullard’s best tenants have been those who have committed the most serious crimes.

“It makes sense that the person who was in prison for 25 years doesn’t want to go back and do that again,” she said. “If people do commit a new crime, it’s a crime out of poverty, for lack of opportunity. If communities were more accepting of folks who have served their time, then our recidivism rate would go down.”

If communities were more accepting of folks who have served their time, then our recidivism rate would go down.”

– Aisha Bullard

More funding for supportive housing should not only build more units in her opinion. Those individuals being freshly released also need skills training for simple everyday problems they haven’t dealt with in a long time or ever before, like when a toilet overflows or the dryer malfunctions. Despite all the barriers in their way, the majority of formerly incarcerated folks make it in the real world.

“When you ask where justice-involved people live, some live in beautiful homes in Chesterfield with a gorgeous backyard,” said Bullard. “Plenty of justice-involved people are just model citizens buying homes and living their lives like everyone else.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.