State policymakers across the country are following the lead of Texas and Missouri to address mounting homelessness in American cities. So far this year, Arizona and Kansas legislators have introduced bills that will get more people off the streets and into shelters and rehabilitative programming. They should also consider policies that can help prevent homelessness by targeting the pathway from prison to the streets. One promising approach uses performance-based funding to reward prisons for helping people secure stable housing placements pre-release, and rewarding probation and parole departments that assist them in maintaining that housing.
People exiting prison account for a sizable portion of the homeless population, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates at nearly 600,000 people nationwide. Formerly incarcerated people are ten times as likely to be homeless compared with members of the general public. Roughly half of people in shelters have been to prison, with one in five having left within the last three years. It’s harder to estimate the proportion of the unsheltered homeless population that has been incarcerated, but most experts agree that it is even higher.
People leaving prison have the highest risk of becoming homeless soon after release. Within the first two years of getting out, approximately 11.4 percent of those exiting prison use a homeless shelter, with the greatest portion experiencing homelessness within their first 30 days on the outside. Prisons provide minimal support and transitional services to ex-inmates, and even those that do offer help have little incentive to deliver effective services and improve outcomes for their “clients.” No surprise, then, that over one-quarter of the formerly incarcerated experience “a trajectory of persistent desperation and struggle, [with] frequent periods of homelessness and housing instability.”
Prisons are in a unique position to provide such supportive services, however. Some have experimented with pilot projects helping people leave with a plan for securing housing, connecting with key community organizations, and developing practical skills for staying in their housing. Such programs have shown success without creating or subsidizing new housing. Project Greenlight, for example, was successful in using housing assessments, individualized planning, and coordination with community organizations to match those leaving prison with both appropriate housing and supportive services such as substance-abuse programming.
Additional prison programming focused on housing preparedness is a sensible way to target homelessness among exiting prisoners. But programming alone will not be effective. Prisons need to be financially motivated to innovate new programs and be held accountable for efforts that don’t work.
Performance-based funding models, such as those used by states as varied as Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Utah to improve outcomes in community corrections, are an effective way to ensure accountability and reward demonstrable success. Arizona saw a 31 percent reduction in probation failures once its state legislature created a performance-based funding model for county probation departments. Pennsylvania saw an 11.3 percent reduction in recidivism when it rebid its contracts with community corrections providers to encourage better results. Last year, Utah created a program that financially rewards its Adult Probation & Parole agencies for boosting the employment rate of people on their caseloads.
States should create similar performance-based funding models for prisons. Reduced recidivism is an obvious metric for such funding, but rewarding housing placement as well would encourage prisons to ensure that former convicts stay out of crime and off the streets.
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