Health Care for the Homeless was pleased last month to release a new report exploring the relationships among homelessness, incarceration, and re-entry in Baltimore. Student interns, HCH staff, and dozens of people who have themselves experienced homelessness and incarceration spent long hours listening to more than 400 men and women who had been released from jail or prison within the past ten years.
The results are striking. Two-thirds were released between the hours of 8:00pm and 5:00am when most supportive services are closed. Respondents who first entered the corrections system in their youth were more likely to spend ten years or more behind bars over the course of a lifetime. Seven in 10 felt that they had never completed a “home plan” upon release—an unsurprising statistic given the number of individuals who returned to the community homeless. The percentage of people without stable housing doubled following incarceration—with one-third reporting unstable housing prior to their most recent incarceration and two-thirds unable to access stable housing six months after release. Almost 70% lacked stable housing at the time of the interview—with most citing the inability to find work and their criminal record as significant barriers to housing.
Ironically, when asked what factors would have most prevented their incarceration, the most common responses were employment, housing, and health care—particularly substance abuse treatment. Of respondents who reported experiencing homeless before their incarceration, three-quarters indicated that stable housing would have prevented their arrest. Six in ten said that employment opportunities would have helped prevent their incarceration. Over half of respondents indicated that substance abuse treatment would have prevented their incarceration—one-third of these believing it to be the single most important factor. These self-reported connections are supported by research showing that individuals who are able to secure employment, housing, and comprehensive health services have significantly lower rates of recidivism than those who do not.
Here’s an audacious idea: let’s reduce the number of people in our jails and prisons—and the growing costs associated with mass incarceration—by ensuring that people have access to livable incomes, affordable housing, and comprehensive health and social services. Let’s invest upstream instead of suffering the far costlier downstream consequences of inadequate social supports.