Fighting homelessness: The invisible homeless – from incarcerated to displaced

An increasingly underserved population in McHenry County and the state of Illinois is the previously incarcerated homeless.

According to the report Incarceration and Homelessness, the population incarcerated rose from 500,000 to 2.1 million between 1980 and 2004 in Illinois. In 2004, the number of people exiting jails and prisons into the community was 9 million and 650,000, respectively. While some studies on the rates of previously incarcerated homeless individuals have been conducted, much more research is needed.

One such study, by the Illinois Partners for Human Services, indicated “the costs of not addressing homelessness are high because of the expenses of medical treatment, shelters, police intervention and incarceration. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that individuals who are homeless spend, on average, four days longer per hospital visit than nonhomeless individuals. Homeless people also tend to spend more time in jail because of laws targeting the homeless population, such as regulations against loitering and begging.”

The study indicates the return on investment for homeless prevention is as high as a $4 for every $1 invested. The prevention cost savings come from the reduction in medical, shelter, incarceration, police intervention and other expenses associated with homeless individuals.

The ex-incarcerated are the invisible homeless in our communities, and, just as with all community members, investment in their well-being is an investment in the community by bringing down the taxpayers’ cost for social services. This population often faces actual homelessness or is part of a vicious cycle of recidivism, a cycle that relies heavily on social services without being able to offer adequate rehabilitation to end this reliance.

One of the HUD definitions of homelessness is “being discharged from an institution such as … a jail/prison, in which the person has been a resident for more than 30 consecutive days and no subsequent residence has been identified and the person lacks the resources and support networks needed to obtain housing.” For example, a person being discharged from prison after more than 30 days is eligible only if no subsequent residence has been identified and the person does not have money, family or friends to provide housing.

The ex-incarcerated also face the cycle of recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “an estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years. ... More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year.

The cycle of recidivism occurs because the options are few for those released. They can face actual homelessness or go back to where there is food, shelter and clothing by committing a new crime. Although incarceration is not pleasant and brings post-traumatic stress syndrome of its own, it is an option to homelessness.

Ex-offenders are stigmatized, preventing them from employment and from obtaining housing. An employer or landlord has the right to protect their interests, especially when they cannot determine the true character of the individual who has a record. Some ex-incarcerated individuals are not ready to change or are ready, but lack the ability to be truthful and to work within the system of society. It is easier to go back to old ways, old friends and old haunts than to become exhausted trying to find work and asking friends and relatives for a place to stay.

Communities can become stronger by providing other options to the ex-incarcerated. First, it reduces possible crimes. Second, it harnesses the potential of dedicated workers, and lastly it produces mentors and examples for those who come after them, not to mention the costs of incarceration, which run in the billions of dollars.

New Life Transitions is a new nonprofit organization that will provide a select few ex-incarcerated individuals who want to change with a program and environment to detach from their old world and reattach to a new world with new skills and attitudes.

Because the barriers are difficult, the transition time might take up to two years and might require services from many agencies in the Continuum of Care, the church community and employers.

However, the benefits to a healthy community are enormous.

• Teagen Andrews and Charles Sprague are the vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of New Life Transitions.

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