Since 1977 female imprisonment in the United States has ballooned 757 percent. Female incarceration rates are rising faster than any other population. Upon release from prison, in order to successfully reenter their communities, women identify housing as one of their most urgent needs. A safe, decent and affordable home is essential for human survival and dignity. However, women with criminal records are often denied access to housing, a violation of what many consider a basic human right. An overwhelming majority of women leaving prisons across the country are low-income women of color. Women of color comprise 60 percent of female inmates, and black women are about six times more likely to be incarcerated than white women. These women are heavily concentrated in urban areas such as New York City, where there is an extreme shortage of affordable housing. While New York City provides subsidized housing to thousands, formerly incarcerated women are largely under-served. Not having access to a secure home, formerly incarcerated women become homeless, are unable to be successfully reunited with their families, and experience high levels of recidivism.
Women of color comprise 60 percent of female inmates, and black women are about six times more likely to be incarcerated than white women.
This paper will investigate the intersection between the lack of affordable housing and high recidivism rates among women. Additionally, it will examine how institutionalized barriers to reentry and the government’s failure to provide adequate supportive services to women with criminal records is perpetuating a cycle of criminal behavior, incarceration and homelessness.
“There is a lot of shady stuff that goes on, making it really hard to know why someone is rejected.”
Exclusionary housing policies, while intended to protect public housing tenants from individuals with criminal records, are overly harsh, especially considering that eighty percent of the women who enter New York State prisons have been convicted of nonviolent drug or property offenses. Depending on the severity of these crimes, in New York City women with criminal records are subjected to 2-6 year bans, during which they are unable to apply for public housing. Even after women have served what Ryan J. Moser of the Women’s Prison Association refers to as their “housing sentence,” individual officials within the public housing agencies (PHAs) of New York City have full authority in determining whether or not they will be provided with public housing. Federal and state laws leave the fates of formerly incarcerated people seeking housing largely in the hands of PHAs. PHAs are given significant discretion in crafting admission policies related to applicants with criminal histories. According to Mr. Moser, “There is a lot of shady stuff that goes on, making it really hard to know why someone is rejected.” Consequentially, even women who have been successfully rehabilitated and pose no threat to tenant safety are denied housing.
In the face of an affordable housing crisis, women with criminal records are an especially low priority for public housing officials. According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report entitled No Second Chance, because the demand for public housing exceeds the supply, the federal government has “adopted a method of ‘triage’ to whittle down the numbers of qualified applicants” instead of “dramatically increasing the availability of affordable housing.”
“Affordable housing is housing we can’t afford.”
–Marco Brumfield, Civic Participation Trainer and Member of the Housing and Women’s Campaign, Picture the Homeless
Even women who have been successfully rehabilitated and pose no threat to tenant safety are denied housing.
Ironically, the small percentage of women with criminal records eligible for affordable housing in New York City are often unable to afford the apartments available to them. For example, in the case of apartments newly constructed through the 421-A Affordable Housing Program of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the Low-Income Affordable Market-Place Program (LAMP) of the New York City Housing Development Corporation in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, the size, rent and targeted income distribution for the 95 available apartments are as follows:
Apts. Apartment Household Monthly Rent Total Annual Income Range
Available Size Size Min Max
1Studio 1 $561 $20,743 – $29,040
151 Bedroom 1 $599 $22,183 – $29,760
2 $599 $22,183 – $31,056
652 Bedroom 2 $720 $26,537 – $34,020
3 $720 $26,537 – $37,152
4 $720 $26,537 – $37,152
143 Bedroom 4 $836 $30,789 – $42,540
5 $836 $30,789 – $43,104
6 $836 $30,789 – $43,10
Federal housing programs designed to assist low-income people have been cut by over 75 percent.
For most low-income women applying for housing the above listed income levels are what Deborah Miles describes as “unrealistic.” For one Picture the Homeless member, Deborah Dickerson, who made $7 an hour as a home attendant care worker and $8 an hour in security, totaling in an annual income of less than $16,000, apartments priced at this amount were simply unaffordable. Strangely enough, while public housing and public assistance programs seek to provide for the same populations, individuals earning the above-mentioned incomes are not eligible for public assistance. According to Picture the Homeless, the maximum income an individual can earn in order to maintain public assistance is $651.39 per month, culminating in an annual income of $7,816.68, which is significantly less than the required minimum income for a household size of one. As Mr. Moser says in reference to the women participating in the WPA’s supportive housing program, “Our clients are all priced out.”
Federal housing programs designed to assist low-income people have been cut by over 75 percent. Because of a lack of federal funding, in New York City, housing available through Section 8 (a voucher-based federally funded housing program) has dramatically diminished. In an attempt to fill this gap, New York City has created the Housing Stability Plus (HSP) program, a subsidized housing plan which through sliding scale payments provides rental assistance for a period of five years. However, to be eligible and to maintain HSP, the client must be a recipient of public assistance. Once the client achieves an income level which disqualifies them for public assistance, they are terminated from the HSP program. While many low-income women qualify for public assistance, many earn incomes which barely exceed the minimum public assistance requirement but are not nearly adequate enough to secure affordable housing. “If you start to make too much money you are cut off,” says Mr. Moser of the Women’s Prison Association. “Women participating in HSP quickly reach the threshold and lose their housing benefit. This discourages them from getting a good job and they finish the program as insecure as they started. Ultimately, HSP will fail if they don’t find a way to fix it.”
Even if housing is secured, residents are subjected to harsh one-strike policies. These policies give PHAs “the discretion to terminate the lease of a tenant when a member of the household or a guest engaged in drug-related activity, regardless of whether tenant knew, or should have known, of the drug-related activity.” The drug-related activity of one member of the household can result into the eviction of the entire family.
“There were mice running across the child’s crib and the woman was sleeping on a filthy mattress infested with bedbugs. The child’s legs were covered with bites.”
As a result of these inconsistencies, many women wind up homeless.
“Give me liberty or give me death. They’re giving us death in these shelters.”
Nation-wide, one third of all homeless people are female. However, because men still make up the majority of the homeless population, the shelter system is ill-equipped to deal with the needs of women and their children. Deborah Dickerson, who has experienced New York City shelters as a single woman, reflects that in shelters, “women are the lowest on the totem pole.” All too often women experience harassment and the needs of their children are inadequately met. Leroy R. Parker, a member of the Picture the Homeless Housing Campaign, relayed the experience of one young mother residing in a women’s shelter in Queens, New York. According to Mr. Parker, “Her child was born into the shelter system and at eight weeks old had only had one doctor’s visit. There were mice running across the child’s crib and the woman was sleeping on a filthy mattress infested with bedbugs. The child’s legs were covered with bites.”
In order to obtain custody of their children, women are required to prove that they have secured a safe and suitable home.
In New York City, between 30 to 50 percent of parolees are homeless. Thirty percent of the individuals in New York City homeless shelters have been incarcerated. As previously discussed, homeless women with criminal records have an especially difficult time transferring to permanent housing. Mothers with criminal records, who constitute seventy-six percent of the female prison population, face the additional problem of being unable to secure a residence which appropriately accommodates their children without first proving that they have legal custody. However, in order to obtain custody of their children, women are required to prove that they have secured a safe and suitable home. This is what Mr. Moser calls “the big Catch-22.” Without a home, you do not get your child. Without your child, you do not get a home.
Women experience extreme stress as a result of the obstacles to family reunification. As Deborah Dickerson said, “Being homeless and not being connected to your family can really bother you horrendously.” Feelings of frustration, helplessness and shame, often result in a return to the same destructive behaviors that originally led to incarceration. Homeless women are characterized by the same high levels of recidivism as the overall formerly incarcerated population. In 1999, nearly 600,000 individuals were released from state and federal prisons and returned to their communities. Of these individuals released, 67.5 percent were rearrested for a new crime and 51.8 percent were sent back to prison within three years after release. Eric Tars, human rights staff attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that, “people are pushed outside of society once they have a criminal record.” Mr. Tars described the general picture of criminalization as one holding immense consequences for access to housing and other public benefits. As a result, people’s inability to lead a normal life perpetuates a cycle of criminal behavior.
“We spend far too much locking people up. Giving people economic opportunities, educational opportunities, safe housing and supportive community environments: that’s what works.”
–Ryan J. Moser
The average cost of maintaining a permanent apartment with supportive services in New York is approximately $34 per day per person. In comparison, a New York State prison cell costs $88 per day per person.
Currently, government policies are failing to address what Deborah Dickerson refers to as “the revolving door” of arrest, release and rearrest. In an attempt to remedy these problems, Mr. Moser says “People are starting to think creatively about housing.” In recent years, non-profit organizations working in reaction to and in concert with government agencies have worked to develop supportive housing programs. Supportive housing is a successful, cost-effective combination of affordable housing with services that helps people live more stable, productive lives. Supportive housing has proven effective in helping women with criminal records successfully reenter their communities.
Despite the comprehensive nature of supportive housing services, it costs significantly less than incarceration. The average cost of maintaining a permanent apartment with supportive services in New York is approximately $34 per day per person. In comparison, a New York State prison cell costs $88 per day per person. A New York City jail cell costs $175 per day per person and a New York City shelter cot costs $68 per day per person. Additional costs must be considered for female prisoners with children in the foster care system. Incarcerated women in New York State are mothers of 6,000 children, many of them in foster care, which costs $20,000 per year per child and adds significantly to the cost of incarceration. As has been demonstrated by criminal justice reinvestment studies, reduced incarceration rates result in net social savings.
“Housing…I have the right to that.”
–Leroy R. Parker
In the United States, housing is not legally considered a human right. The United States has signed, but never ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which recognizes everyone’s right to housing. According to Eric Tars, ratification of ICESCR would serve to “change the framework in which people think about this issue. Currently, housing provision is viewed as government charity and not as a government obligation.” If housing was a right, it would be considered a responsibility of government. As Mr. Tars said, “If housing was guaranteed, government could be held accountable.”
The failure to ratify ICESCR does not mean the United States government is not responsible for providing adequate housing. The United States has ratified the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Article 6 of ICCPR guarantees the right to life. However, according to the UN Human Rights Committee, in failing to provide basic services (such as housing) to the United States’ burgeoning homeless population, the United States government is failing to prevent the deaths of these people and is violating Article 6. Therefore, the provision of housing to the homeless can be seen as an indirect obligation of the United States government under ICCPR.
Article 1 of CERD states that “the term ‘racial discrimination’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Article 5 (e) (iii) signifies that there can be no racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to housing. In the United States, the majority of incarcerated and homeless people are African-American. Under CERD, policies that have the effect of discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to housing are in fact violations of the United States’ international treaty obligations. Yet in the United States, domestic law only prohibits the crafting of policies with the purpose of racial discrimination. As a result, United States domestic law fails to prohibit policies that have the effect of racial discrimination, even though they are in violation of the United States’ international obligations. However, because of RUDS (Reservations, Understandings and Declarations) the United States government is legally exempt from being challenged in domestic courts for its failure to prohibit policies with this effect.
“If I don’t have the tools to get me from point A to point B, how am I ever going to be independent?”
“The system is not set up where you can come out and make it.” However, Mr. Moser is “guardedly optimistic”
Clearly, the current system is failing to rehabilitate prisoners and empower formerly incarcerated women with the tools they need to successfully reunite with their families and reenter their communities. As Deborah Miles, housing specialist at Greenhope Services for Women said, “The system is not set up where you can come out and make it.” However, Mr. Moser is “guardedly optimistic” about the work that is being done. Non-profit supportive housing organizations such as the WPA have developed positive relationships with the New York City Department of Corrections, which according to Mr. Moser is “working to be less punitive and more generative.” Although he considers New York City to be “improving drastically”, he believes much more attention needs to be paid to the specific issues surrounding formerly incarcerated women.
New York City and the rest of the country should further recognize the merits of supportive housing and other reentry services, and should heed the recommendations of human rights organizations and change the laws and policies surrounding the exclusion of people with criminal records from federally-assisted housing. Considering the United States is the only country that deprives people of the right to housing because of their criminal histories, this is not too much to ask.
Deborah Miles. Housing Specialist. Greenhope Services for Women.
Ryan J. Moser. Program Associate. Women’s Prison Association.
Marco Brumfield. Civic Participation Trainer and Member of the Housing and Women’s Campaign. Picture the Homeless.
Deborah Dickerson. Member of the Housing and Women’s Campaign. Picture the Homeless.
Leroy R. Parker. Member of the Housing Campaign. Picture the Homeless.
Eric Tars. Human Rights Staff Attorney. National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Debbie A. Mukamal. Director of Prisoner Reentry Institute. John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (provided references and guidance)
New Beginnings: The Need for Supportive Housing for Formerly incarcerated People. Prepared by Kendall Black/Common Ground Community and Richard Cho/Corporation for Supportive Housing. New York 2004.
A New Feminization? Why Homelessness is a Women’s Issue. Prepared by Maria Foscarinis/National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. January 2001.
No Second Chance: People with Criminal Records Denied Access to Public Housing. Human Rights Watch. 2004.
Safe at Home: A Reference Guide for Public Housing Officials on the Federal Housing Laws Regarding Admission and Eviction Standards for People with Criminal Records. Legal Action Center. Fall 2004.
Race and Incarceration in the United States. Human Rights Watch. 2002.
Housing Toolkit. Women’s Prison Association.
“From Locked Up to Locked Out: Creating and Implementing Post-release Housing for Ex-prisoners,” AIDS Housing of Washington.
“Newly Constructed Apartments for Rent,” Daily News. Friday, July 28, 2006.
“After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry,” Legal Action Center. 2004
“U.N. says Racial Impact of Homelessness is Human Rights Abuse,” National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. July 28, 2006.
www.wpaonline.org (Women’s Prison Association)
www.greenhope.org (Greenhope Services for Women)
www.picturethehomeless.org (Picture the Homeless)
www.nychri.org (New York City Human Rights Initiative)
www.cesr.org (Center for Economic and Social Rights)
www.nesri.org (National Economic and Social Rights Initiative)
www.urbanjustice.org (Urban Justice Center)
www.nyc.gov/html/dhs (Department of Homeless Services)