Needed: Housing for people getting out of jail and prison

15 May 2020

In today's Daily News, Osborne President & CEO Elizabeth Gaynes and Judi Kende, VP of Enterprise Community Partners published an op-ed urging the city to act quickly to expand housing access for people leaving prisons and jails.

May 15, 2020

Kende is vice president and New York market leader of Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit housing organization. Gaynes is the president and CEO of the Osborne Association.

You can read the originally published piece here.  

While the total number of new COVID-19 cases is thankfully beginning to plateau in New York City, in our jails and prisons, it’s a different story. Case numbers there are currently peaking in staggering numbers: According to the Legal Aid Society, as of May 8, over 95 of every 1,000 people incarcerated at Rikers Island have tested positive for COVID-19, compared to just 21 residents per 1,000 citywide. Dr. Rachael Bedard, senior director of geriatrics and complex care services at Rikers, stated plainly, “The only meaningful intervention here would be to reduce the jail population.”

The city has taken swift action to secure early releases for people at Rikers who are at risk of exposure or highly susceptible to succumbing to COVID-19. But early release, by itself, isn’t enough. We must account for the housing needs of this population. In recent years, justice-involved people have represented up to nearly a quarter of all people who enter the New York City shelter system. During a pandemic, this is not an option, as a flood of early releases into already overcrowded shelters would undoubtedly create new coronavirus cases and ultimately worsen the city’s homelessness crisis.

New York City officials must take immediate action to expand housing access for justice-involved individuals. This starts with mandatory COVID-19 testing for everyone being released from city jails. Those testing positive as well as those awaiting results after potential exposure will need emergency single-occupancy housing, which the city must act quickly to secure.

The good news is that housing solutions are available. The city has begun to place formerly incarcerated people in hotels serving as emergency transitional housing. We must now urgently scale up these efforts. Along with hotels, some vacant spaces, including underutilized patient facilities, college dormitories, commercial spaces and closed recreation and community centers can be viable housing options for justice-involved individuals. The city must quickly increase the use of these vacant spaces by supporting nonprofits and service providers to convert these spaces into safe emergency housing, learning from physical distancing best practices of other cities and states that are implementing similar measures. These organizations provide crucial aid to vulnerable residents, including pregnant women and people in need of mental health and substance abuse services.

We should also prioritize housing availability for those who cannot secure letters of housing assurance, which establish that they have a stable housing address to which they can return.

Along with this use of temporary emergency housing, we also need to think long-term by offering rental assistance as an ongoing, permanent solution. For the formerly incarcerated, the existing barriers to finding employment are exponentially magnified by the skyrocketing current unemployment rates and long-term economic uncertainty. Increasing rental assistance by expanding Section 8 vouchers, SOTA vouchers, CityFHEPS, and Justice Involved Supportive Housing (JISH) is key to future housing stability for justice-involved individuals.

Many people being released from jails and prisons have family in public housing and should be able to shelter in place with them — and also to help deliver resources to family members who are ill or have limited mobility. Our city and state leaders must collaborate with the New York City Housing Authority to adjust their temporary guest policies so that people with conviction records can safely stay with their families. Specific measures to ensure this should include expanding resources for family-focused reentry programs such as NYCHA’s Family Reentry Program, expediting requests for temporary admission, and suspending inspections to preserve the health of residents.

We urge our city’s leaders to act as quickly as possible to prioritize safe housing for those released from jails and prisons — and for New York City as a whole. Collectively, we’ve endured the pains of social distancing, the stress of COVID-19 on our healthcare and financial system, and the emotional toll of losing loved ones to the pandemic. As we work together to recover, we must fund and open emergency transitional and permanent housing for formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering their communities. City officials must take these critical steps to care for our most vulnerable populations and ensure that we move forward, not backward.