Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. Continuum of Housing Options


Housing for the formerly incarcerated can best be viewed along a continuum of options from full self-sufficiency to institutionalization with high public costs. The continuum will vary both by the degree of structure and restrictions that are demanded of the resident, and by the cost of providing the housing. On one end of this continuum is independent housing, where an individual leaving incarceration reenters the community to live either independently, as a homeowner or renter, or as part of a larger family household. From a policy perspective, this is generally the most advantageous housing arrangement as direct public costs are minimal, and some form of independent housing is the preferred option for most persons. However, if there are difficulties in sustaining the living arrangement, due to economic or personal difficulties, then such an arrangement can also be a precursor to the consumption of costly public homeless, health care, and criminal justice services.

In many jurisdictions the market housing costs may be too high for many individuals released from carceral facilities given the preponderance of poor work histories, low educational achievement, and few marketable job skills in this population. Subsidized housing, available through a variety of publicly funded, project-based or voucher-based programs, when available, may be a viable, affordable option. However barriers exist to obtaining subsidized housing, as these programs usually have strict eligibility criteria and long waiting lists, and may proscribe occupancy by persons with a criminal history.

The next housing option, in terms of progressively increasing degrees of restrictiveness and cost, includes both supportive housing and special needs housing, which are permanent housing options coupled with support services. These types of housing are most often partially or wholly subsidized, and specifically designed to support disadvantaged populations. Not only are the rents in such housing subsidized based on tenant income, these subsidies also come with a range of services aside from housing, including counseling, life skills training, case management, and assistance brokering medical and mental health services. These services are designed to maximize independence, be flexible and responsive to individual needs, be available when needed, and be accessible (Corporation for Supportive Housing, 1996; Burt et al., 2004). Service configurations, as well as housing configurations, vary across programs. General examples of permanent supportive housing include the Shelter Plus Care Program, the Section 8 Moderate Rehabilitation Program for Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) Dwellings, and the Permanent Housing for the Handicapped Homeless Program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (Burt, et al., 1999).

Special needs programs often define eligibility for housing funding based upon the disability or health profile of individuals, rather than on the individuals homelessness status. People recently released from prisons or jails may be eligible for these programs due to factors such as a diagnosis of mental illness. As a result, some special needs programs serve returning prisoners simply because of the high rates of incarceration among populations who have disabilities related to substance abuse and mental health (Cho et al., 2002). For most programs, though, homelessness is a primary requirement for program eligibility (Burt et al., 1999, p. B-2). Many of these programs have eligibility criteria that may exclude persons returning directly from prison.

Moving along the housing options continuum, transitional housing falls after supportive housing and special needs housing but before full institutional care. Transitional housing is an umbrella term to capture any housing that is not permanent, and where housing is also integrated with at least some type of service that assists clients with personal rehabilitation and transitioning to a more permanent living situation in the community. Maintaining a transitional housing placement is often contingent on participation in services, as compared to supportive housing where these two components are bundled much more loosely. Some housing experts make the distinction between short-term and long-term transitional housing. Short-term transitional housing programs have a finite length of stay, which may vary anywhere from one month to three months (or more depending on definitions). Long-term transitional housing programs generally have a time limit spanning from three months up to two years. These programs offer an extensive range of services that can include case management, mental health and medical services, counseling and general issues groups, life and social skills groups, anger management, vocational and educational training, advocacy, and assistance obtaining benefits and identification information. Configurations of transitional housing programs vary widely from barracks-type facilities, to shared living spaces, to individual apartments or houses. Programs most often will be site-specific, but programs exist that have their housing units in scattered sites.

Finally, institutional settings are the last housing option on the continuum. In the case of homeless shelters, providing housing may be their primary function. More often, however, institutions (e.g., prisons, hospitals) exist primarily for other functions, but provide these services in a residential setting. When looked upon as housing, institutional settings are the most restrictive and the most expensive form of housing. In New York City, for example, costs per bed in a psychiatric hospital run roughly $127,000 a year, and a prison cell costs over $50,000 annually (Culhane, Metraux, & Hadley, 2002). Even homeless shelters, often providing the most minimal of amenities, cost anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 per person per year (Lewin Group, 2004). Institutional settings can be interchangeable; Park, Metraux, and Culhane (2006) found upwards of one-quarter of single adults entering a New York City homeless shelter for the first time in 1997 had a history of either hospitalization or incarceration in the 90-day period prior to shelter entry. And Hopper et al. (1997) documented how a group of persons diagnosed with severe mental illness made serial use, over an extended time period, of an institutional circuit comprising various types of facilities.

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