Don't Darken Our Doors: Federal Housing Policy, Homelessness, and Ex-Offenders

Audrey M. Natcone, Northeastern Illinois University

The 1990s have seen the growth of homelessness throughout the country, with the largest increases seen in our largest cities (Burt, 2000). The Chicago metropolitan area has witnessed increases in homelessness in the central city and the collar counties; evidence from recent surveys suggests that homeless service providers are frequently being asked to provide services to the ex-offender population. With federal housing programs permitted or required to deny housing to those with criminal backgrounds, and with many prisoners lacking financial means or family ties, recently released prisoners are turning to homeless service providers as their source of housing (California Department of Corrections, 1997).

Taking Chicago as a case study, this exploratory research examines recent survey data on homelessness, census data, and interviews with advocates for the homeless to define the intersection of homelessness and incarceration. Federal housing policy exacerbates homelessness among ex-offenders, by carving out a special class of individuals who can never avail themselves of certain public housing options. Alongside this barrier to public housing is the limited availability of private affordable housing. Thus many ex-offenders are effectively foreclosed from finding housing, other than at short-term emergency shelters. The effect of this near-sighted federal strategy may lead to reincarceration.

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Updated 05/20/2006