Devising a Smart Supportive Housing Strategy for Returning Citizens Upon Reentry

15 June 2016

Testimony by the Osborne Association to Assembly Standing Committee on Correction Assembly Subcommittee on Transitional Services 

Testimony by the Osborne Association to Assembly Standing Committee on Correction Assembly Subcommittee on Transitional Services 

Hon. Daniel J. O’Donnell, Chair, Assembly Committee on Correction
Hon. Luis Sepulveda, Chair, Assembly Subcommittee on Transitional Services

SUBJECT: Devising a Smart Supportive Housing Strategy for Returning Citizens Upon Reentry

June 13, 2016

Good morning. My name is Elizabeth Gaynes, I am President and CEO of the Osborne Association. The Osborne Association is a nonprofit organization with programs serving individuals affected by incarceration, including people in prison and their children and families, with headquarters in the Bronx, and additional programs in Brooklyn, Newburgh, Rikers Island and 20 state prisons, where we offer a range of family, health, and reentry programs. We appreciate the opportunity to participate in this important hearing on barriers to housing after incarceration -- and solutions.

“Reentry” is a nice word that used to be reserved for astronauts reentering the earth’s atmosphere, but what it has always meant for people in prison, and should always mean, is GOING HOME. Implicit in this idea is that there is an actual physical place, beyond a bed and a pillow (although that would also be a step up for some). Is there anything more obvious than a home as a pillar of successful reentry?

There is no need to rehash the current state of housing and homelessness in New York. Literally thousands of men and women are returning from prison directly entering homeless shelters. And New York’s criminal justice policies directly led to this result. These include:

  • the virtual elimination of arguably the best program ever devised to transition people from prison to safe and supportive housing – Work Release;
  • extreme sentences that lead to people aging in prison so that their families are no longer able to offer support, their earning years were spent in prison so they are not eligible for Social Security and Medicare, and age discrimination is an additional barrier -- beyond the impact of their criminal record -- to finding living wage employment that can cover their rent, even in supportive or so-called affordable housing;
  • prisons built hundreds of miles from their homes and families, contributing mightily to the fraying of family ties that might otherwise have provided safe and supportive homes for returning citizens;
  • families who might be willing to provide a home but cannot always afford the added cost, stigma, or threat of eviction associated with housing a loved one with a criminal record. 

Families:  The 24/7 Reentry Program

The day my children’s father was released from prison 7 years ago, there were four of us there to greet him. We had waited several weeks after his parole was granted; he could not be released until his residence with our son in Raleigh NC was approved by parole. When his dad finally walked out, we loaded the car with boxes of his books, papers, photos – he had given away all his electronics and clothing – and stopped at the first rest area so he could shed his prison blues and shoes, and put on brand new clothes that we had brought. We got off the highway an hour later at Ruby Tuesday’s, and helped him get through the menu to find things he had craved for many many years. The only shadow on the moment was seeing the other man released that day, looking less than eager to embrace his new freedom, getting in the prison van with a pillowcase filled with all that he owned, to be dropped at a bus stop to go – we don’t know where. To this day I think of him and hope there was someone waiting on the other end.  

 

Osborne takes a family-focused approach to all of its work, recognizing that at the end of the day, families are the reentry program of first and last resort, and that family support -often dependent on maintaining family ties during incarceration – provides the critical safety net for individuals as we address these challenges. DOCCS and the Assembly have long funded Osborne to deliver a range of programs designed to support incarcerated men and women to make, mend and maintain family ties. Over the last year, both the legislature and the governor have added funding to expand video-visiting and New York’s prison visiting policies are among the best in the country.

 

New York has increasingly recognized, and addressed, the multiple complex needs of people leaving prison and returning to the community. While many formerly incarcerated individuals return to families, a significant number – especially those who have been incarcerated for long periods – are unable to return “home,” at least not in the short term. Yet those who are released without pre-arranged housing and who enter the shelter system are significantly disadvantaged in accessing transitional support – including behavioral health care or employment -  that the reentry system might provide. Organizations like Osborne have found that people who leave prison or jail without a stable housing plan disappear and often fail to enter the very programs designed to support their transition to the community. 

The Need for Multiple and Multi-Pronged Housing Solutions

There has been considerable progress in improving access to supportive, affordable and market rate housing for persons involved in the criminal justice system, to reinforce their successful reentry. However, as documented in numerous reports surely referenced by others testifying today, there are simply too few housing resources in New York for those leaving the criminal justice system. One part of the solution is supportive housing. Another part is removing barriers for access to living with family members in public housing, and a pilot project in NYC is starting to address that in some cases. But more is needed:

There remains a critical and virtually unmet need for immediate, transitional housing that can be accessed without going through (and getting lost in) the shelter system, that focuses on re-connecting people to their families or on connecting people to permanent supportive or affordable housing options while supporting their reentry needs for other services, including nutrition and independent living skills, education, employment, behavioral health and health services, case management and counseling. Such transitional housing should offer a safe and high quality alternative to three-quarter houses.

While the mental health system funds beds for those with mental illness, and Homeless Services funds beds for homeless people, and the substance use treatment system funds beds for treatment of addiction, the criminal justice system provides virtually no funding for housing other than prisons. The agency formerly known as Parole has at times contracted for a few transitional beds for people without viable housing upon release, and may well do so again, but at a level that is likely to be less than 0.01% of need. Yet such funds for safe immediate transitional housing should contribute to making communities safer and healthier, including reduced recidivism, and less spending on incarceration and other services, especially when these residences are operated by organizations with experience serving justice-involved people.

The Redevelopment of the Fulton Correctional Facility

With the support of the Governor and the Legislature, the Osborne Association is redeveloping the Fulton Correctional Facility as a community reentry center. We had originally envisioned two floors of transitional residential services with 60-70 beds, but the need we are seeing among those we are preparing for release has led us to propose developing up to 125 beds on 4 floors for residential capacity enhanced by a range of reentry support services. There are other organizations with residential capacity that could similarly offer an alternative to Three Quarter houses that are clean, safe, and include food, case management, and other services that will prepare individuals for permanent housing (including returning to families) and successful reentry. However, there is no available funding for this type of housing – either to develop or operate it.

Typically, the only funding for transitional housing is for homeless shelters. We are currently talking to the NYC Department of Homeless Services about funding beds that would diverge from the general definition of shelter beds, where the operator has little say over who is selected to fill an empty bed, where we would have to take whomever in the shelter system is sent to us. But the model needed for the reentry population requires the ability to build a supportive community model, and the selection of people who are appropriate for the other services we are offering.[1]

In our efforts to re-develop this closed prison, we have found great skepticism – including from colleagues in the field of housing and homelessness, and including government agencies such as HUD – about so-called “transitional” housing. This is understandable, because the housing field has been developed largely in response to the chronically homeless for whom permanent housing is the holy grail. In fact “recidivism” among housing experts typically refers to return to shelter, not a return to prison! And it is certainly true that in many cases, without a concomitant investment in permanent housing, there seems to be little point to transitional housing. What would our residents “transition” to? (Hint:  the answer could include reconnected families.)

People coming home from prison are not typically the “chronically homeless.” Prior to their incarceration, they may have been living in substandard or unsafe or unstable housing situations, but they were not usually the long term chronically homeless, and they require different responses. Returning citizens generally differ, when they enter a shelter, from those coming from “the street” in many ways, including their personal habits, possessions, and concerns.

When I see men and women walking out of prison, it sometimes reminds me of the Minneapolis airport security screening area, at least some years ago. As you know, you come to the security area and have to remove your shoes, your belt, your jacket, your liquids and gels, your laptop, your watch, and then you come through the metal detector and then you wait to pick up your things and try to put yourself together. In Minneapolis, they called that place the Recombobulation Area! Clearly you haven’t actually arrived at your destination, it is definitely transitional, but it is also important to be able to get yourself “recombobulated” before you actually arrive at your destination.

For people leaving prison, this is a time of transition even if you are going home to your wife, your kids, or your parents. The need for residential reentry services is a transitional need.  Those who are able to go through Work Release, or through a transitional housing program that directly addresses their special needs, find it to be a critical component of their reentry success. These options offer more than a bed. They offer the kind of community and mentoring and understanding of this challenging time in a person’s transition to freedom. And an important part of the role of a residential reentry program is to support individuals in their efforts to find and maintain permanent housing, as well as employment, education and treatment.

Elder Reentry Housing

As people aging in prison are the fastest growing demographic in our facilities, they are typically released – when they finally make parole – without many remaining friends and family, awed or afraid of technology, often with chronic medical challenges and possibly age-related cognitive impairments. Senior housing, when it exists, does a background check, and not too many of those who have aged in prison over the course of 15, 25, 35 years ace that test. But to send them to shelters for however long it would take them to find appropriate housing is terrifying and untenable. As my mother used to quote:  Alone and afraid, in a world I never made.

Osborne’s Elder Reentry Initiative is a pilot program currently in Fishkill and Sing Sing – although Parole Board commissioners recently referred a couple of cases of elders from other facilities whose parole was on hold because they didn’t want to release them to shelters. Our pilot provides geriatric assessments and develops discharge plans for elders returning to NYC. Not surprisingly, housing – including assisted living and nursing home placements – is the most challenging part. Permanent housing is elusive. Safe transitional housing options are few and far between.

We encourage New York State to add specific funding for transitional housing, or to open current and projected capital and operating funding for housing to include residential reentry beds. Of course the success of this model presumes expansion of permanent supportive and affordable housing, and reducing barriers to access that housing for people with criminal records. It specifically also would require reducing barriers to access for assisted living facilities and nursing homes that may resist people with criminal records with or without sufficient income and Medicare. (Medicare, even for those otherwise eligible, is denied people while on parole per federal regulations.)

Supporting Families to Increase Housing Options

Affordability of existing housing options is also problematic. While we support the continuation and expansion of various Section 8, SEPS, HASA and other voucher programs designed to assist people to access permanent housing, we believe that a less expensive solution for many is being ignored:  SUPPORTING FAMILIES WHO WELCOME PEOPLE HOME.

Some of you recall a day when we were willing to pay foster parents who were strangers to take in a child removed from his/her home, but offered no assistance to the grandparents or relative caregivers who were willing to step in but could not afford another person to house, raise, and support. We now have an excellent system of KINSHIP FOSTER CARE that encourages family members – who are best able to provide the love and care that children need – to become foster parents.

And yet ironically, we are paying shelter costs probably comparable to the cost of prison, and offering vouchers to landlords, and in other ways paying for housing the homeless, but are not supporting the reentry housing program that is not only the least costly, but likely the best able to support reentry success. KINSHIP REENTRY HOUSING. We incentivize landlords, why not incentivize families?

In conclusion, our three primary recommendations are as follows:

  1. Expand Work Release, in terms of number of people and expanded eligibility – no one should be released directly from a maximum security facility, and many more people could benefit from an opportunity to save money and adjust to freedom before final release.
  2. Establish a pilot Kinship Reentry program that makes it possible for more families to provide housing and reentry support.
  3. Fund transitional housing and/or ensure that capital and operating funding for permanent supportive and affordable housing be accessible for transitional housing for recently and formerly incarcerated individuals, utilizing an approach that takes into account and addresses specific reentry challenges (e.g. seniors, women seeking to reunify with children, LGBT.)

For more information, please visit www.osborneny.org or contact Jonathan Stenger at 718-707-2721 or jstenger@osborneny.org.

[1] The Transitional Housing model that could address both criminogenic risks and needs as well as basic human needs is likely to cost approximately $35,000 per bed per year, including screening, food, drug testing, case management, linkage to education, employment, medical and behavioral health services, PLUS debt service for construction costs if capital funding is not provided. For Fulton, this would mean approximately $4 million for 125 beds, serving on average 250 people per year. (These beds would be on four floors enabling us to serve different target populations on different floors, e.g. those older individuals who have served long sentences, single younger individuals, 17-24, a college dorm for people completing higher education begun inside, people released from maximum security prisons or special housing units, etc.) For more information on Fulton, visit www.osborneny.org/Fulton.