After being released from prison, individuals face a myriad of decisions. Housing is one of those decisions. Multiple studies indicate that recently-released individuals who become homeless are more likely to return to prison than those with stable housing.
Since 2014, the number of inmates in corrections facilities in the state has increased by nearly 1,200. By the end of 2015, the total number of inmates reached 28,095. In 2014, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics noted Oklahoma had the second highest incarceration rate. In terms of imprisonment of women, the state led the nation. These increasing numbers of inmates are overcrowding prisons, leading to early releases as well as calls for changes to the prison system. But with increasing numbers of inmates comes a growing housing worry.
From January 2014 to January 2015, the total homeless population in Oklahoma dropped 9.9 percent, based on research by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In 2014, according to a 2014 point-in-time survey by the Tulsa City-County Continuum of Care, 12.2 percent of individuals surveyed suggested prison and/or jail time was a major contributor to his/her becoming homeless. Since 2010, this number has stayed relatively constant. Yet 68.6 percent of homeless individuals have been imprisoned at some point. Depending on the charge, convictions can greatly impact an individual’s search for housing after release from prison.
Sex offenders, for instance, are restricted to living in certain areas. The Oklahoma Sex Offender Registry Act prohibits sex offenders from residing within two thousand feet of any school or educational institution, property used by an organization whose primary purpose is to work with children, a playground or park operated or supported by a homeowner’s association, or a licensed child care center. Legislators have also criminalized groups of sex offenders living together after police voiced concern over a ministry housing large groups of such individuals. Offenders have difficulty finding places to live that fit within these rules, which increases the chances of them becoming homeless.
Dan Straungah, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said that “in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Norman, there are very few places that are both willing and legally able to house sex offenders…there’s really less than one hundred units in all of Oklahoma City.” “A fair number of sex offenders are unsheltered homeless,” he added. The phrase “unsheltered homeless” describes those staying in places not meant for humans, like streets, abandoned buildings or vehicles.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which offers affordable housing and homelessness programs, excludes lifetime (Level 3) sex offenders and those believed to be currently engaged in illegal drug use or have a pattern of illegal drug use from subsidized housing. Section 8 housing choice voucher programs provide rental assistance to those those with low income.
But the state agencies that administer these vouchers for affordable housing can discriminate based on criminal background. This limits the financial assistance available to newly released people.
In Oklahoma, the HUD agencies are the Tulsa Housing Authority (THA), Oklahoma City Housing Authority (OCHA) and Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency (OHFA), which serves those in cities and counties without a public housing authority. THA does not provide assistance to those with a recent record or history of violent criminal activity or drug/alcohol abuse.
Most decisions are made by a review board on case-by-case basis. According to Matthew Mills, director of public housing at OCHA, the agency uses “convictions to determine criminal activity unless there’s other evidence we have, for example witnesses, video evidence, security reports, etc. to deny housing or evict from housing.” An individual’s conduct, not arrest records, can also factor into decisions, as it may show they are not suitable for tenancy. Denied applicants may appeal the decision.
Of the state agencies, only OHFA provided outcomes of application data from 2011 to 2014. More than 25,000 applications were submitted, and 6 percent were denied due to criminal history. Most of these denials were due to violent or drug crimes. This number does not describe the amount of individuals who did not apply to housing agencies due to fear of rejection because of criminal histories.
Legally, landlords can refuse to rent to those with criminal histories. They may do this in the name of safety for the other residents. Federal law prevents other forms of discrimination, such as sex, age and race, but not criminal history. Criminal history, however, may be tied to these other factors.
The prison population does not represent the demographics of the state, leading non-whites to be overrepresented in prisons, which translates to housing issues, based on this history, disproportionately affecting people of color. In 2010, whites made up 49 percent of the incarcerated population of the state while making up 69 percent of the total population. Hispanics and blacks are overrepresented in Oklahoma prisons. For instance, blacks, which make up 7 percent of the population, represent 26 percent of the prison population. Hispanics, 7 percent of the population, make up 15 percent of the incarcerated population.
Karen White, administrator for intervention/re-entry for Oklahoma DOC, said housing denials further punish former offenders. “Even though you paid your debt to society, you still have that charge,” she said.
Lacking an address can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle. Many job applications require both an address and an ID. Without a permanent address, some newly released individuals may find job seeking difficult, further compounded by their criminal record, which then prevents them from finding new housing. Furthermore, banks may require an address to open an account. Some shelters allow those under their roof to use the shelter’s address as their own.
Lacking an address can also lead ex-offenders back into old hangouts, as their only place of living becomes homes of old friends or relatives. These old companions can increase the risk of offenders returning to their old habits.
Straungah sees mental illness and substance abuse as some of the primary causes of homelessness. In 2014, 20.2 percent of those surveyed by Tulsa City-County Continuum of Care identified alcohol or drug abuse as contributing to their situation, while 24.8 percent identified mental health issues. These issues, Straungah added, are one of the primary reasons people go to prison or jail. They also become a perpetuating cycle, as individuals misbehave because of mental illness or substance abuse, which leads to jail, but upon re-entry, they engage in the same behavior, as they do not have adequate treatment or counseling.
The Department of Corrections does work to address housing issues before inmates are released. White said they work with shelters, missions and transitional living places to find housing before re-entry. If the person is part of a tribe or has relatives nearby, case managers may attempt to place the individual there. Yet this variety of options does not mean everyone is accounted for. “It sounds like a lot, but the space is limited. We make every sort of effort to house people,” White noted. But once individuals leave the DOC’s jurisdiction, they are no longer tracked.
Oklahoma prison overcrowding has added to the issue, although Straungah hasn’t noticed any severe changes to the homeless demographics he works with. But cap laws, which dictate how many people a prison can hold, may lead to early release of certain individuals. In Oklahoma City, he sees a large number of people in this scenario, as they have been released before case managers have been able to discuss housing solutions.
In the case of such releases, White said the case managers make every effort to find living spaces. Because they legally cannot hold these individuals any longer, they might not always have time, but generally, these people get tickets to the nearest homeless shelter. Some, however, “are so glad to get out, they could care less about letting us know” where they will be living, she said.
As for potential solutions, Straungah believes residents need to decide if they’d rather pay now or later. “Either you pay for more social workers,” he said, “or you pay with the recidivism rate.” But he realizes that since the state can’t pay enough guards, they would be hard-pressed to pay for more social workers.
Changes in the court system would also be favorable, White said. By changing who the court sends to prison, the state could use the saved money to put into programs with a better success rate than prison, especially for nonviolent crimes. “We as a community need to recognize we have issues that even though we don’t know them affects all of us,” she added, “The morality of it should make us very unhappy that we have people suffering that we could help.” This realization, White believes, will create these important changes.
“We are a ‘get tough on crime’ state,” White noted, but “hopefully in the future we’ll be a ‘smart on crime’ state.”