More on the Prison/Homeless Churn

How many people are homeless before they enter prison? How many leave prison with no fixed destination? Of the 70 percent of released prisoners who return to prison, what proportion are homeless?

If only for public safety reasons, you might assume the correctional system would want to know those numbers. But surprisingly, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) does not explicitly track that information.

A well-funded assessment tool (COMPAS) was launched in 2008 to predict which inmates were likely to become higher-risk parolees. A preliminary assessment of its data estimated that 39 percent of inmates were at high risk of “residential instability.”

Upon request, the research branch of the CDCR provided a one-time summary of the total number of parolees — and their housing status — at fixed point in time. (Note that parolees do not represent all released prisoners; those who are released after serving out their sentences do not have to go on parole.) CDCR reported that 1,193 parolees were homeless in Los Angeles County with no identifiable address — one in 25 parolees in Los Angeles County. Viewed in the context of Los Angeles’ 2009 point-in-time Annual Homeless Count, CDCR’s data suggest that one in 50 homeless people in L.A. is an active parolee.

The situation in San Francisco was similar. CDCR reported that homeless parolees numbered 199 — one in seven, or 13 percent of active parolees. Based on San Francisco’s 2009 point-in-time Homeless Count, that means that one in 33 homeless persons is an active parolee.

For this report, researchers defined as homeless only those parolees who listed themselves as either “transient” or “homeless.” This is a very narrow definition of homelessness, excluding anyone who lists a shelter’s street address or his mother’s address (even if she wouldn’t let him stay there).

In the 2009 San Francisco Homeless Count survey, 4.5 percent of street-living respondents stated that they were homeless because of incarceration and that their criminal record was the reason. In other words, roughly one in 20 of San Francisco’s street-living homeless is homeless – and likely to stay homeless — due to incarceration.

Released prisoners are all felons. A felony conviction bans someone from almost all forms of transitional, subsidized, or supportive housing. Sex-offender status restricts housing options even further; not surprisingly, service providers report that more and more sex offenders are living on the streets.

In the Bay Area, Napa County has by far the highest percentage of listed homeless parolees (17 percent, or roughly one in six). San Mateo and Solano counties were tied for having the highest proportion of parolees in their homeless counts (roughly one in 17 homeless – 6 percent).

The relatively small numbers of studies on this subject, coupled with reports from people working in this field, suggest that the CDCR numbers represent an extreme undercount. A cross-sectional survey of 360 California prisoners in 2004, all aged over 55 and within two years of release, found that 1 in 12 reported a risk factor for homelessness.

Inmates released from California prisons often have no food, no place to go, no money, no change of clothes, no pills, no identification, no phone, no strong family ties, and little to no hope of employment. One third were originally incarcerated for drug-related reasons. They’re older, and frequently ill. (The 2004 survey found that 79.1 percent suffered from a medical condition and 13.6 percent from a serious mental illness.) They’ve been stripped of Medicaid or Medicare coverage and have no appointments for ongoing care, which means the destination county will likely absorb the cost of their care, at least in the short run.

Even for a released prisoner with a sound education, motivation to change, and no history of mental illness, lack of impulse control, or disabilities of any kind, our current prison release process creates a perfect storm of conditions that perpetuate homelessness. About 125,000 Californians a year are released from prison. What’s remarkable is that even more of them are not on our sidewalks.

Changing the Prison-Homeless Churn

There are many simple, relatively cheap institutional changes that could reduce the barriers and decrease the risks of homelessness for Californians released from prison. They include:

  • Prior to release, automatically re-enrolling inmates who qualify in Medi-Cal or Medicare (at least on a probationary basis)
  • Providing a California identification card
  • Providing a one-page summary of medical history and medications
  • Creating and implementing sanctions and penalties for the prison system’s failure to perform mandated case-management visits prior to releasing a mentally ill inmate
  • Collecting, tracking, and analyzing homelessness rates for admitted, released, and reincarcerated prisoners
  • Reducing out-of-state prison transfers, or, at minimum, keeping in state those prisoners with vulnerable relationship ties
  • Arranging a post-release medical home and appointment for inmates with recent surgeries, on-going treatment for infections, or chronic conditions requiring uninterrupted medication (not just for mental illness and HIV, which is required by law)

There are also more complex and highly effective ways to address the link between incarceration and homelessness. The good news is that the CDCR as a whole seems to be moving toward a much more rehabilitation-focused approach.

Recognizing the role that the prison system plays in contributing to homelessness might allow us to create effective interventions and change the culture on our streets. It might also buffer the long-term public health costs and consequences we all must bear from the complicated mix of homelessness, violence, substance abuse, and mental illness.

Prison churn explains, at least in part, why some communities feel they can’t make a dent in homelessness despite considerable effort. Prisons will continue to release people at higher rates than they can be rapidly housed and reintegrated. Even if you ignore the toll in human suffering, the economics cannot be sustained.


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