Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. Future Directions for Research and Policy


Much has been accomplished in past decade toward, first, gaining awareness and a basic knowledge of the dynamics between incarceration and homelessness, and then implementing programs to address this nexus. However these developments represent a beginning; there remains significant ground to be covered in both understanding and addressing this area.

Looking at the research, the findings on incarceration among the single adult homeless population support the assumption that there are heightened rates of homelessness among incarcerated populations both before and after their incarceration episodes. Less conclusive evidence supports the plausible assumption that there exists a spiraling process in which involvement in one domain subsequently increases the risk for the other. More research is needed that goes deeper into this nexus than determining rates of overlap. Specifically, additional research should focus on three objectives.

The first is attaining a better understanding of the association between homelessness and incarceration. This includes research on specifics pertaining to the nature of this association; dynamics whereby people released from incarceration become homeless and people who are homeless become incarcerated; and risk factors and intervention points that exist among this population. There are also common, potentially mitigating factors that are prominent among the homeless and incarcerated populations whose role in this nexus is under-researched. The need for a better understanding of these factors, which include substance abuse, employment, and mental illness, and the roles they play in and of themselves and in interacting with each other, appears pre-requisite for outlining the nature of the homelessness-incarceration nexus. Such a gap in the research has practical implications as well, as empirically informed approaches to addressing these conditions are necessary for effective intervention models.

Second, additional research should assess the effectiveness of interventions that, either directly or indirectly, seek to prevent homelessness and incarceration among at risk populations. Currently, programmatic interventions are necessarily ahead of the available literature that documents best practices. Homelessness and reincarceration represent two basic, undesirable outcomes and should be used as measures by which to assess performance of such interventions. Having measures in place that can monitor the extent to which such outcomes occur would be a means to gauge program effectiveness, as well as the first step towards identifying specific features of the interventions that are effective in preventing these two outcomes.

Key here is evaluating the assumption that stable housing is necessary (though often not sufficient) to prevent both homelessness and incarceration among at-risk populations. The existing research suggests that housing is indeed a promising approach around which to focus intervention efforts, but beyond that many questions remain to be answered. Future studies will need to examine more detailed and nuanced outcomes than those typically reported in recent studies that focus on the blunt (though necessary) measures of occurrences of homelessness and incarceration, and would include outcomes that factor in issues such as community integration, employment, and quality of life. And, given a sufficient body of literature, at some point the research on incarceration and homelessness could go beyond examining and evaluating current practices and toward acting as a basis for designing models and interventions specific to reducing homelessness and incarceration among at-risk populations.

This begs the question about what is different with this population that is at heightened risk of incarceration and homelessness, and whether specific programming should address the needs of this population or if this population should instead be served under the auspices of existing programs. Indeed, demographically and in terms of disability and other characteristics, this subpopulation of persons who are homeless are very similar to the overall single adult homeless population. One difference, however, is jurisdictional. Many among this subpopulation who lapse into homelessness do so subsequent to release from carceral facilities and en route to eventual reincarceration. Were the criminal justice system to extend its jurisdiction over this at-risk population to cover their immediate return back into the community, the end of involvement in the criminal justice system would not be marked by the completion of a sentence of incarceration, but by a reintegration into the community. The latter part of a persons sentence could be used for this, or the community housing and support services could extend beyond the sentence. This would extend reentry services and roll back the need for homeless services. It would also bring the resources of the criminal justice system to bear on reducing reincarceration and homelessness, and in this respect could take the housing expressly for this subpopulation beyond its current patchwork of boutique programs.

Extending the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system would not cover the entire subpopulation at risk for homelessness and incarceration. Even if the needs of those with proximate past histories of jail or prison were addressed through a separate reentry system, those who are homeless would still be at heightened risk for incarceration. The housing needs of those with identified conditions that are linked to homelessness and incarceration, most prominently mental illness, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS, should be addressed through interventions, with access to housing, in systems that target these specific populations. Those persons that remain, which should be a substantially reduced fraction of the at-risk population, would then be served through homeless services, with the view of housing as an outcome that would not only eliminate homelessness but also reduce the risk of incarceration.

In the absence of this partitioning of the subpopulation to different systems, homeless services will, by default, continue to act as a de facto reentry program. Homeless services have so far not responded sufficiently to this subpopulation. This, more generally, speaks to the need for flexibility in being able to establish programs that target new manifestations of homelessness, of which homelessness related to incarceration is one example. Currently, major federal homeless funding streams for new housing and services, primarily through HUD sources such as the McKinney-Vento program, are becoming less responsive to new initiatives as greater proportions of their resources become locked into continued funding of existing programs.

The third research objective is to explore dimensions of the relationship between homelessness and reincarceration that go beyond its current conception. An example of this is the extent to which family homelessness is linked to the incarceration of a parent or guardian. Incarceration is currently assumed to affect mostly homeless individuals, yet it may well manifest itself in family homelessness. Bringing families into this nexus is something that has heretofore largely been ignored, and research is needed to determine the extent to which such collateral impacts exist and the nature of their needs. Another example is the dynamic of this nexus in rural areas, which would explore and possibly challenge conventional thinking about both homelessness and incarceration as being urban problems. Finally, both homelessness and incarceration exact tolls on communities as well as on individuals and families. Research needs to look at the overlap of these two social phenomena from this perspective as well.

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