A Collaborative Approach to Addressing Homelessness and Improving Stability
Homelessness is a public health problem shared by all—and, as such, it necessitates a multidisciplinary collaborative approach to solving it. An optimal system is an interconnected, collaborative, treatment-based, information-sharing, supportive system of care that tracks outcome measures and responds to all aspects throughout a person’s lifetime. Data collection and shared metrics across workforce, housing, criminal justice, social service, and other systems will enable tracking of individuals’ needs and service usage, which in turn allows a true analysis of their outcomes and informs resource investments. The allocation of resources to support services across systems has the potential to yield societal benefits over and above long-term cost savings, including increased sense of community, public safety, and reduced suffering for those stuck in the cycle of repeated homelessness and criminal justice system involvement.
In addition to embracing a collaborative approach to this multidisciplinary problem, we offer the following recommendations:
1. Local officials should eliminate ordinances that over-criminalize the homeless.
Texas cities should immediately review and eliminate harmful ordinances that unfairly target homeless individuals, including panhandling, camping, sitting and/or lying in public spaces, loitering, and sleeping in a vehicle. The fine for violating such an ordinance can create an insurmountable financial burden, while arrests result in homeless individuals spending time in jail - further impeding their ability to obtain housing and employment.
2. Local officials should reduce restrictions on alternative housing for parolees.
Alternative housing is a transitional living option for individuals leaving a correctional facility on parole. Current restrictions determine who may be an alternative housing provider, as well as where the facilities may belocated. For example, Houston passed an ordinance in 2018 that imposed new regulations and inspections to improve the safety conditions of such facilities, but it also required that they be located at least 1,000 feet from parks, schools, day cares, and other reentry housing, which will force parolees out of the city center and further from needed supports.
The stigma that makes transitional housing undesirable must be changed; isolation is not the answer. Where we house recently released individuals has a direct impact on their ability to create positive change in their own lives. Without proper access to a bus stop, it is difficult for one to apply for housing and employment, reach service providers who assist with identification recovery and benefit restoration, or meet the requirements of their parole. Relaxing alternative housing restrictions will generate more opportunities for recently released individuals to take responsibility in becoming independent, self-sustaining members of society.
3. Local and state officials should increase community-based, wrap-around housing options with a Housing First orientation.
Supportive housing, under a Housing First approach, is more than just providing a roof over someone’s head. A Housing First approach provides wrap-around services such as case management, medication management, social support, and peer services. The implementation and provision of services to homeless individuals is most successful when it incorporates those with lived experience; we should not over-professionalize service provision and neglect the point of view of those who have actually experienced homelessness and incarceration.
Programs using a Housing First approach have housing retention rates ranging from 85 to 90 percent among individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, and repeated incarceration and interaction with the criminal justice system. While “treatment first” models have recidivism rates of roughly 50 percent, “Housing First” models have rates between 12 and 14 percent.
4. The State should automatically restore benefits to people who have been incarcerated, and correctional facilities should provide benefit enrollment assistance prior to release from incarceration.
As individuals enter the criminal justice system, they are screened with mental and behavioral health assessments. They should also be screened for eligibility and current enrollment for benefits including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and veteran’s benefits.
Incarceration may result in the suspension and/or termination of certain benefits. For example, SSI benefits are suspended for individuals who are incarcerated for longer than a full calendar month, and they are terminated after 12 months of incarceration. SSDI benefits, on the other hand, are suspended if recipients are convicted of a crime and incarcerated for more than 30 consecutive days, but are not terminated after 12 months of incarceration. In terms of Medicaid coverage, states vary in their consideration of incarceration. As of July 2016, 16 states plus Washington, DC, suspended Medicaid for the duration of incarceration; 15 states suspended Medicaid for a specific period of time; and 19 terminated coverage altogether. Texas suspends coverage for 30 days, after which benefits are terminated. Initiating benefit enrollment prior to release through application assistance can ease the transition back into the community.
All criminal justice facilities in Texas should take advantage of programs that help people experiencing homelessness enroll in or restore benefits. Those experiencing homelessness are often eligible for benefits, but they either are not enrolled or require assistance with the application process. These individuals may lack transportation, a mailing address, and/or access to a computer with internet access. Due to these challenges, many experiencing homelessness do not complete their application, experience longer processing times, or receive denials. Also problematic, a new application does not guarantee that benefits will be reinstated after being terminated as a result of incarceration. In Texas, the success rate for initial SSI/SSDI applications is 67 percent. When homeless individuals submit a traditional application without assistance, the approval rate falls to 28 percent. SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) is crucial in helping individuals compile the forms and documentation needed for an application to be approved. As of 2015, criminal justice facilities in 20 states used SOAR specialists to help individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness complete applications.
5. Correctional facilities should reduce inappropriate discharges from incarceration.
Inappropriate discharges occur when an individual is released from a correctional facility without proper knowledge of where to receive services. Often, discharges occur in the middle of the night, and the individual is unaware of the public transportation in place, medication continuity instructions, and other vital information. Discharges in evening hours are a public safety concern, especially for individuals at risk of destabilizing off their medications.
6. The State and correctional facilities should augment reentry supports to ensure people leaving incarceration are on the most successful path.
To reduce homelessness among people leaving confinement, reentry preparation should begin early, and it must include processes for determining whether someone was experiencing homelessness prior to incarceration and the likelihood that they will return to those circumstances upon release. It should also have the capacity to evaluate the social support networks in place, legal considerations, and obstacles to successful reintegration and personal well-being. Most importantly, correctional institutions should have access to community-based housing resources to ensure that no one is released from jail, state jail, or prison without a temporary housing placement.
For people specifically discharged from state jail or prison without parole supervision, reentry preparation is especially important. These individuals are not required to have a housing plan, and they are not eligible for one of the few state-funded beds at residential reentry centers. This lack of reentry support for the nearly 30,000 people discharging state jail or prison sentences in Texas each year greatly increases their odds of re-arrest – especially among people who are homeless at the time of release.
The State should establish and fund partnerships with nonprofit agencies that provide peer support, housing support, recovery support, and vocational training to people discharging state jail or prison sentences. These nonprofits could provide reentry planning, assistance finding temporary housing upon release, and peer navigation where people with lived experience of incarceration and successful reentry can help newly released individuals achieve similar success.