Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
What Returning Citizens Need to Make Successful Transitions
The fundamental building blocks for returning citizens’ successful transition back into society are, ironically, the most challenging for them to secure: steady employment, safe and affordable housing, and reliable transportation. If these three major needs are met, their chance of ending back behind bars is greatly reduced.
Employment, housing, and transportation are largely interrelated, as it is hard to have one without the other. For instance, it is difficult for a person to keep a job without having a place to live relatively nearby; it is doubtful a person can continue to pay rent without having a regular source of income; and it is challenging to find housing or commute to work without a reliable means of transportation. This catch-22 is what makes reentry so intimidating for those getting out of prison.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Finding safe and affordable housing is a particularly perplexing issue for returning citizens. After leaving prison through parole, probation, or by maxing-out, their housing options are generally limited to living with family or friends, living at a transitional house, securing public housing, or renting. Each person’s circumstances determine their living situation.
For some, going to live with a family member is the best option, as it enables them to have a free place to live while trying to get back on their feet (that is, if there is another provider supporting them). For others, this is the worst place for them to go, as family members have been a poor influence on their lives and would further entrap them in a lifestyle of crime. Still, others may be in desperate circumstances and in need of public housing, while a few have the necessary means to rent an apartment or a house.
Potential Roadblocks: Affordability and Criminal Records
By far the biggest obstacle to obtaining housing is affordability. Many people leave prison owing various debts including child support arrearages, court fees, damages, restitution, etc. Faced with financial stress from multiple directions, many find it difficult to balance paying rent with any number of fees while trying to secure a job that pays a reasonable salary.
The other major hindrance that returning citizens face in obtaining housing is the impact of their criminal record. Many private leasing offices run background checks on prospective tenants, prohibiting those with a felony conviction from occupancy. Further, those who seek public housing run into the problem of Public Housing Authority’s limited capacity and multiple restrictions. Those who were evicted for drug-related criminal activity are banned from public housing for three years (unless they complete an approved rehabilitation program), while lifetime registered sex offenders and anyone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines on public housing property are banned for life.
Housing Partnership Shows Some Success
As a means of overcoming some of these barriers, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Community of Affairs teamed up to form Reentry Partnership Housing (RPH). This program provides housing for people who have been authorized to parole but remain in prison due solely to having no residential options. For this group, the government pays approved housing providers $600 per month for three months which includes housing and food. Those who demonstrate the best outcomes receive the most parolees from the state.
The program has shown some success in alleviating the burden for hard-to-place parolees. “From 2002 to 2008, RPH placed 516 parolees, including 30% classified as special needs.” In addition, “Over 58% of participants secured employment…only 5% had their parole revoked and less than 3% absconded” (see Award-Winning Georgia Reentry Program).
While the program has had some success, one notable shortcoming is housing providers are often not located in the best cities for parolees to find jobs and establish roots. It is essential that returning citizens are placed in sufficiently resourced areas to aid in their successful transition; otherwise, the program becomes merely a short-term solution that leaves the person jobless and homeless after three months.
Identifying Housing Solutions
A potential remedy to this problem is to identify, facilitate, and fund housing providers in the cities where returning citizens are most likely to return. If people are placed in areas where they can find a job and have access to transportation, their chances of successfully transitioning into society are much higher.
The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support & Reentry (GOTSR) is making a considerate effort to identify and coordinate housing providers in the six reentry pilot sites that have been established across the state* (Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah).
GOTSR is in the process of implementing the new Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI) Framework at these sites as a means of creating a seamless transition from prison to the community for those who will be released in these cities. The office is in the midst of hiring community coordinators, housing coordinators, employment coordinators, and prison in-reach specialists to aid in making this transition successful for returning citizens.
A big part of the work taking place at these sites involves identifying all of the resources in the local community that are available, assessing what resources are missing, encouraging service providers to work together and avoid duplicating efforts, and creating a database where returning citizens can easily access these resources. GOTSR launched a website earlier this year that contains the database where service providers can be found.
Undoubtedly, it will take the effort of local communities committed to meeting the needs of these men and women in order to see a tangible difference being made. However, if this sort of local involvement takes place throughout the state in conjunction with the efforts being made at the state level, who knows what sort of impact we will see in the lives of returning citizens over the next decade?
*Note: GOTSR does not provide funding for service providers in these communities but rather works to identify, coordinate, and galvanize these providers to effectively serve those returning to their communities from prison.