Are Prison Release Practices Creating Homelessness?

reporting on health prison release homelessnessIn California’s largest cities, one senses that the number of homeless people continues to grow, whatever the interventions to prevent it.

But some of the more commonly cited reasons for that growth don’t explain the whole story.

The closure of state mental hospitals created a major wave of homelessness throughout America, but that was decades ago.

The depletion of affordable housing is another often-cited factor. Yet some cities, including San Francisco, are making a concentrated effort to move homeless people into housing.

So what else could be contributing to the growth? One area that hasn’t been examined adequately is the role of our prison system.

Looking at the facts, it’s hard to argue that prisons don’t play a major role.

In 2010 alone, California’s prison system released more than 125,000 former prisoners into our neighborhoods. Prisoners close to that number are released each and every year. How many local housing programs would it take to offset this annual tidal wave? Not surprisingly, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated in 1999 that 30 to 50 percent of parolees in San Francisco and Los Angeles were homeless.


If you think about the obstacles that many prisoners face when they are released, it’s not hard to understand why so many end up homeless.

Imagine you’re leaving a cell after a relatively short sentence of, say, five to 10 years. Here is the reality you face after you’re released:

1. For security reasons, neither you nor anyone who knows you is allowed to know in advance when you’ll be released. So it’s impossible to make appointments in advance for health care, for job interviews, for housing placement, or for assistance of any kind.

2. You have little money and probably no prospects for income. You get, at most, $200 on release (but even that small amount can be at the discretion of your parole agent). Out of that $200, you must pay for clothes, if you need them, and a bus ticket. You’re now down to a small amount of cash, which must cover you for the indefinite future because you are pretty much unemployable. (Too bad if you have contracting skills, since a felon is permanently barred from getting a contractor’s license.)

3. You are ineligible for almost all affordable housing. To get publicly subsidized housing, you must be able to pass a “crimcheck” to show you’ve never been convicted. You’ll never pass a crimcheck again in your life. That leaves you the street, a shelter, or trying to bum a night or two on someone’s couch.

4. You probably have no relationships left. There’s a good chance you haven’t seen a friendly face during visiting hours in years. Your girlfriend/boyfriend moved on ages ago. Your parents may have died. Even if your loved ones tried to hang in there, the longer you’ve been behind bars, the more your relationships have eroded. This erosion is much worse if you are one of the prisoners that California shipped to another state. Who could visit you in Wyoming?

5. You may have health problems, and you have no insurance. Prisoners are older and sicker on release than they used to be. But unless you have HIV or are one of the subset of prisoners whose mental illness was diagnosed in prison, you get no help when you leave — not even an appointment, not even one day’s worth of pills. In fact, you’re sent out without even a piece of paper to show what medical conditions developed or care you got in the last decade.

Even if you had been receiving federal disability benefits before prison because of, say, a profound learning impairment, your eligibility was automatically cancelled when you were incarcerated. You now have to re-apply, without easy access to medical care, as though you had never qualified before. The process takes months and is extremely complicated. It requires a dedicated, persistent professional working on your behalf, and an address and phone. None of which you have.

6) You probably have no identification. Getting a legal job requires I.D. But when you go to prison, no one lets you go home first and pick up your Social Security card. And by now, your stuff is likely all gone. Your driver’s license might have expired while you were behind bars. Proving who you are, without anything that can prove who you are, can be a circular bureaucratic hell. In California, getting a copy of your birth certificate requires a $19 copy fee, a notary fee, and an address to which the document can be sent.

7) Even if you have a plan for accomplishing all this, it might disintegrate. Release from prison is a rocky, difficult adjustment for most everyone involved. Perhaps a loved one said you could come stay, and then, as issues of blame and hurt and frustration mounted, you ended up on the street. Or maybe a friend of a friend promised you a job, but when you showed up with tattoos, and without ID, the job fell through. And then your wife got angry and… Well, you can see how easily fragile support systems can disintegrate after release.

When you look at it all together, the way we release prisoners almost seems specifically designed to create homelessness. The people who are incarcerated are already disproportionately likely to come from resource-poor communities, have few job skills, and have diagnoses of learning disabilities and mental illness or both. It’s no wonder that so many end up on our sidewalks.

What do you think? Do you think that the way we release prisoners is a factor in creating homelessness in your area? Do you want to know how many people in your county might be homeless felons? Stay tuned for the next post in the series for actual numbers.

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