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The Relationship Between Incarceration and Homelessness

Written by Sophia Young

Homelessness and incarceration fuel a vicious cycle. Financial struggles lead to people losing their homes and homelessness pushes people to a life of crime. Upon leaving prison, ex-convicts have a difficult time re-establishing themselves in society. They are discriminated against in the job market and even when employed, their wages are low and they aren’t given job security. They are once again sunk into financial ruin and become more likely to re-offend.

The link between homelessness and incarceration cannot be denied. In the US alone, former inmates are 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless. For Black men and women, this link is even stronger as they are more likely to go through financial instability before and after going to prison.

Discrimination is at the core

Discriminatory and racist policies play a large role in this vicious cycle. Homeless people are the most likely to perform criminalized behavior such as loitering, camping, and public urination. The result? Homeless people are being unfairly criminalized. Moreover, homeless people are more likely to be monitored for such prohibited behavior because of discrimination and racism.

Instead of investing in evidenced-based solutions, local governments resort to criminalizing behavior most likely to be exhibited by the homeless. Compared to heinous crimes, these offenses are merely public nuisances that the homeless wouldn’t be forced to commit if they had shelter. The California Police Lab says homeless people surveyed from 2015 to 2017 reported being in contact with the police 10 times more than people who are sheltered.

In addition, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s report in 2019 titled “Housing not Handcuffs” states that homeless people are 11 times more likely to be arrested than someone who is housed. Moreover, for vagrancy-related crimes, Black people are twice as likely to be arrested than white people.

To make matters worse, ex-convicts’ ability to find housing is also negatively affected by stigma. Many people still think people who experience homelessness and incarceration are affected by individual pathology. They are blamed for their situation, which results in more persecution. Despite being able to afford it, many formerly incarcerated people still experience discrimination when applying for housing.

Difficulty in finding employment

Finding and maintaining housing is already hard enough without the additional challenges brought upon by incarceration. With housing prices going through the roof, ex-convicts face a significantly difficult task upon release. Without decent wages and job security, former prisoners are forced to play a bad hand — once again pushing them towards crime. And that’s assuming they’ll get employed at all.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics report in December 2021 reveals 33% of 50,000 formerly incarcerated people didn’t find employment at all, four years after being released. Meanwhile, those who got lucky only found jobs that didn’t provide upward mobility and job security.

Housing programs can break the cycle

If we want to break the vicious cycle, society’s focus should be making housing more accessible to ex-convicts. Instead of proliferating discrimination and further criminalizing the activities of the homeless, we should be making housing more affordable.

Housing First, a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to homeless people has proven to be effective at breaking the homeless-incarceration cycle. Programs under this approach are given stable housing so they can focus on improving their circumstances. For ex-convicts, this removes the problem of housing and gives them a better chance at a second life.

Final word

Putting an end to discriminatory and racist practices would significantly help incarcerated people get out of the homeless-jail cycle. However, doing so is easier said than done. In the meantime, the best way to help people suffering from imprisonment and homelessness is to make housing more affordable and accessible.


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