April 13, 2021 22:27

How COVID-19 Worsens the Housing Crunch for Returning Citizens

Kilroy Watkins needed a place to stay.

After serving half of a 55-year sentence, Watkins was eligible for parole under the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) day-for-day good conduct sentencing credit. Although he could depart Lawrence Correctional Center, a medium security facility four hours south of Chicago, he still would be under legal custody of IDOC for the next three years.

As a condition of parole, Watkins would need to be available for random visits from a parole officer, find a job, remain in Illinois―and find a place to live.

For all the skills he gained from his legal and academic pursuits while behind bars, securing housing was proving to be the toughest hurdle of all.

Most of his immediate family had moved away from Illinois. So as his parole date drew near, his anxiety grew. After almost 30 years behind bars, where would he go?

“It became very challenging and stressful,” Watkins recalled. “I was in crunch time. What family that relatively know me have space for a grown man to come into their circle?”

That was January 2019. Eventually, Watkins was accepted into a six-month reentry residential program. Still in transition 24 months later, he now is seeking early release from parole.

The barriers he faced were formidable. But in some ways he was fortunate: He did not have to worry about finding shelter in a world afflicted by the pandemic.

As advocates across the country pursue early and compassionate release for non-violent inmates threatened by COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation’s overcrowded prisons, the hurdles to locating reentry housing have gotten higher.

Prior to the pandemic, newly released people without other options might end up in homeless shelters. However, due to social distancing guidelines, those facilities now aren’t an option, said Ahmadou Dramé, director of policy, advocacy and legislation at the Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based reentry group.

“What’s happening to folks with records who are being released during this pandemic as it relates to housing, or what’s happening to people who are incarcerated who could be released but don’t have housing, is a tragedy,” said Dramé in an interview with The Crime Report.

But, as Dramé also points out, the difficulty only underlines how difficult it is for people returning from a prison sentence to secure housing to facilitate their reentry back into the community.

For parolees of Illinois state facilities, the problem begins with the fact that there simply aren’t enough transitional beds for all those coming home who need them. Shortages were already forcing some of the most vulnerable releasees into homelessness—and a likely return to prison.

“The mere act of not having a place to go can be a technical violation, and a technical violation can land somebody back into incarceration,” Dramé said.

Thirty percent of admissions to Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facilities in fiscal year 2019 were due to technical violations of parole.

While Illinois covers short-term housing costs for some departing detainees, it’s not available for the majority of people returning to communities.

“The way that most resources are structured is that it’s hard for a person who doesn’t have a mental health or substance abuse-type situation,” Dramè said.

In fiscal year 2016, IDOC covered the cost of placements between one to three months for 5,804 former prisoners from “challenging populations,” including sex offenders, people with orders for electronic monitoring, people in treatment for substance abuse, and people with mental health issues and nursing care needs.

Watkins didn’t fit any of these categories. And he knew that just any housing situation wouldn’t work to his advantage — even if his remaining relatives in Chicago were willing to open their homes.

“The few that’s left behind have families and children now,” said Watkins who while detained, completed coursework to earn the equivalency of a high school diploma, and earned more than 120 hours in college credits while working for 18 years as a paralegal in prison law libraries in pursuit of justice on his own case and those of fellow inmates.

“They can put me on their couch or in their basement, but they really didn’t have much other than that to help me transcend back into society.”

The Pandemic and Prisoner Release

As correctional facilities became hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks in the early weeks of the pandemic, Illinois granted early release to about 1,000 prisoners.

That’s about the same number of spaces Illinois maintained before the pandemic in its current stock of transitional housing for the roughly 25,000 people who depart Illinois prisons each year. That comprises four adult transitional housing centers―two of which the Safer Foundation operates―with capacity for just under 1,000 individuals.

“The pandemic is forcing all sorts of shelter-in-place,” Dramé said. “There is a need to create more distance within the existing homeless shelter system, which is basically saying we can’t maximize the use of this space.”

Experts say housing is a key to successful reentry.

In its 2018 report No Place to Call Home: Navigating Reentry Housing In Chicago, BPI, a public interest law and policy center, found that securing housing can be a particular challenge for long-term detainees like Watkins, who entered police custody barely an adult and exited decades later without a credit or rental history.

“It’s almost impossible for a lot of people to actually reenter,” Dramé said. “A lot of times housing providers are inclined to not create opportunities to open up their doors to people with records — even if they are employed.”

Public housing policies also have been a barrier for released people seeking to reintegrate into their community.

“We see a lot of resources coming down from the federal government to create more housing at the local level, but what we’re finding is that in many instances they are being used in a way that exclude people with records,” Dramé said.

“If you’ve ever done anything that we think is a risk to personal safety of people who are here, we’re not going to accept you into this shelter. We don’t care if the pandemic is going on.”

People returning from prison also can’t move in with a relative who lives in subsidized housing. The BPI report recommends making a change to this policy:

 Family can be an important support system for individuals readjusting to life outside of carceral institutions. If staying with relatives for a period of time helps individuals get back on their feet, housing authorities and private landlords alike should permit them to do so.

A Burden on Families

But for some former inmates, reentry can be a burden on families. Reentry researcher Keesha Middlemass says that released individuals end up cycling back and forth into jail and prison because family members can’t always offer a stable place when they come home.

“Those connections with family could be really fragile, and now those families that are able to provide housing for their loved one are under an enormous amount of pressure -— particularly if someone is now unemployed due to COVID-19.”

The pre-pandemic story of a newly released prisoner told in The Trouble With Reentry, a report by the John Howard Association (JHA), a watchdog group for Illinois correction facilities, explores how reentry housing can be a challenge for returning prisoners and their families.

When the unidentified releasee moved in with his sister she offered him an older phone and some clothing, but with a low-wage job, she was barely getting by.

“The added financial stress for his sister of having her brother financially dependent on her, coupled with fear and resentment that he would not find a job or would return to bad habits and using drugs as a coping mechanism, led to many fights between the siblings,” JHA wrote in the October 2019 report.

Two months later, he moved out to stay on the couch at a friend’s apartment.

“We’re finding that at least since this pandemic has begun about twenty percent of the clients who’ve come to us who had some sort of initial housing situation lost it and they need a subsequent housing situation,” Dramé said.

One Option: Funding for Caregiver Families

Chicago’s Austin community is home to the largest number of people returning from Illinois prisons. Morris Reed, chief executive of Westside Health Authority, which offers some reentry services, sees the challenges families face when a loved one returns home and has a suggestion to help alleviate the burden.

“I think a policy needs to be put in place for caregiver funding to households who are helping with the transition of people being released,” Reed said.

“You’re saving money when you early release due to the COVID, but you are going to release them back to their families with nothing?”

Dramè agrees that in order for Illinois to respond to the pandemic, reduce recidivism, as well as meet the needs of people returning from custody and the families to which they may return, greater economic support could help.

“In my view there should be a subsidy of some sort that comes along with anyone who is paroled out to live with a love one because we know that technical violations are grounds for someone to reincarcerate,” Dramé said.

NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management came to the same conclusion.

“Many households are facing additional financial pressure because of the pandemic,” the Marron Institute said in a report outlining recommendations for early releases during the pandemic.

“Taking on an additional household member would add to this burden. Agencies should consider living stipends to incentivize family or friends to house early releasees.”

Even as the Illinois Department of Corrections has established community support advisory councils, Dramé said policymakers should develop more resources for community-based organizations to actually provide housing for people with records.

“During the pandemic, there’s a shortage of housing, so we just need the resources to acquire the properties that are conducive to providing [reentry housing] in an efficient way —situations like multiunit type structures that kind of have a single room type situation so that an individual who’s transitioning back into a community can have a room to stay in that’s their own,” he said.

While the majority of grant-funded reentry programming focus on job skills, there needs to be an additional focus on meeting basic economic needs, say experts at the John Howard Association.

“Those who are most in need of treatment and reentry training programs cannot access them because they instead must focus their time and energy on meeting their daily needs for survival: food, clothing, housing, transportation, a safe place to sleep,” JHA wrote in its October 2019 report.

Before he finally left prison, Watkins remembers some of his fellow inmates wondered why he just didn’t wait to serve out the remaining 18 months left in his abbreviated sentence.

“Some guys…said, ‘Hey man, you don’t want parole around following you in your business. You just did 28 years, you can do 18 more months,’” Watkins recalled being told as he filled out applications for residential reentry programs for parolee.

“I’m like ‘Yeah, if that’s what it comes down to.’ (But other) guys were like, ‘Hey man, get the hell out of this place,’” he recalls.

“’Why stay any longer than you could? If any place take you — take it.’”

Cassie M. Chew is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was published with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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