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COVID-19 and Justice-Involved Housing: Double the Challenge for Returning Citizens

Sheltering in place is a challenge for returning citizens

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light countless disparities throughout America—from affordable internet access and public education funding, health outcomes across race, to economic stability, and housing is no exception. That’s why, last week, Enterprise Community Partners and MPC hosted the third webinar continuing the discussion on housing stability for the justice-involved population.

These discussions create equitable responses for recovery that center those most impacted by the injustices of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week’s session included a panel discussion, moderated by Floyd Stafford from The Heartland Alliance, in conversation with Destiny Carter from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), Sharone Mitchell, Jr. from the Illinois Justice Project (ILJP), and Lissette Castañeda from LUCHA

What are the issues and needs of the re-entry population?

Mitchell explained that all those currently in the criminal justice system would rank as Illinois’ second largest city, so this issue affects more people than we think. The re-entry population specifically is composed of all those departing the criminal justice system, either on parole or full release. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is able to support about 3,000 inmates with housing upon their release each year, while, on average, the remaining 20,000 are released with no clear plan for a steady, stable, supported, and safe re-entry.

Currently, the lack of a coordinated re-entry process highlights the fact that the state has not prioritized its justice-involved residents; billions are spent each year to incarcerate tens of thousands of Illinoisans, but far less is devoted to support for those returning home. Without access to housing, employment, and health services, those reentering society face an insurmountable task in creating a stable and independent life moving forward.

What are policy responses that address the needs of the re-entry population?

People with records face discrimination in both the public and private housing market, and the severe shortage of affordable units only exacerbates this problem.

In the public housing sphere, local jurisdictions have the ability to create their own requirements and stipulations for applicants and tenants, and the variation across the state can create huge barriers for the re-ery population.

In the public housing sphere, local jurisdictions have the ability to create their own requirements and stipulations for applicants and tenants, and the variation across the state can create huge barriers for the re-entry population.  Despite the fact that criminal records span thousands of charges, many across the state still rely on the simple trope that having any criminal history indicates that an applicant will not be a good tenant. Thankfully, there are some counties that are moving away from this inaccurate assumption, including Champaign County and Cook County. 

The Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois (RROCI) is gathering support for its Public Housing Access Bill, which will create opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds to access public housing by establishing uniform guidelines for public housing authorities to follow when they consider an applicant’s history. Specifically, it aims to get rid of the normal waiting period that justice-involved applicants have to endure, as well as changing the look-back period to six months, with the requirement that screeners only look at crimes that affect people’s ability to comply with their lease and be a good tenant. 

What kind of advocacy is happening for the re-entry population?

Castañeda explained that the intersection of mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies and the lack of affordable housing are uniquely connected as LUCHA is a housing provider for some returning citizens. As the state continues to fall short in its consideration of increasing release rates during COVID-19, small providers and community groups are stepping up to the plate. Money from the CARES Act has been dedicated to re-entry housing work, but the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has found that the amount they are able to distribute does not match the exponential number of people applying for support during the pandemic. 

The inability to match need as it arises highlights an important avenue for advocacy the panel harped on: prevention. How do we decrease the number of people having contact with the criminal justice system? How can we use stable housing as a tool to help prevent people from entering the system, so the circumstances do not arise that leave people with limited options to survive? How do we minimize the number of people to enter the prison system at all?

In regards to racial injustice and police brutality in Chicago, how should the city respond and what kind of wraparound services for returning citizens are needed to challenge racist systems?

The panel unanimously agreed that we need more permanent long-term solutions, many of which start with demanding more of our elected officials. Mitchell noted: “There is no real political value in caring for folks who are coming back home. We’ve got to change that by expecting something different from our leaders.” Castañeda added: “What we need to do is demand that our elected officials not be afraid to acknowledge the things that are being cried out for right now.”. For too long politicians and legislators have ignored the needs of those re-entering their communities from the criminal justice system, and it is vital that we start holding them accountable in providing more support for re-entry housing.

It is time that the city holistically addresses the concerns of its most vulnerable residents. Black and Brown Chicagoans are being attacked by police brutality and the pandemic, and there needs new violence prevention strategies instead of depending on 100% policing. Revisiting Mayor Lightfoot’s campaign promise of an Office of Returning Citizens Affairs to streamline re-entry services, including advancing policies and legislation to remove barriers to housing and education, should happen as soon as possible.

Carter noted: “We’re really hoping that the city listens to its communities, especially people with records. No one knows what services people re-entering society need more than the re-entry population.” Community driven policies will work to fully invest in services that will get and keep people housed.

What are the gaps in coordination?

An often-overlooked challenge in the re-entry process is that these people are usually coming back to the same communities they were removed from, to the same economic opportunities. 

“You cannot shelter in place without a home.” -Lissette Castañeda

In order to create a timeline to successful re-entry, this gap needs to be filled in the way of restoring and rebuilding communities that have been historically left behind. 

Staying safe, healthy, and stable during the COVID-19 pandemic is a privilege in itself—”you cannot shelter in place without a home,” noted Castañeda. While the process of re-entry has historically been difficult in Illinois, the pandemic has shed a light on more unique barriers to successful independence. As the city strives to build back better, it is vital that the lived experience of the re-entry process is represented in decision-making rooms.

If you missed the webinar, you can tune in here.

Lauren Kataja is pursuing her Masters of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she is broadly interested in urban, social, and health policy, and how community-informed policy can create healthy and equitable economic opportunities in city’s most disinvested neighborhoods.

Chandra Christmas Rouse is a program officer at Enterprise Community Partners. Her work focuses on advancing initiatives with local partners that will improve the livability of low-income residents in Chicago, including regional sustainability goals and equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD), and racial justice goals.