Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. How Have Policy and Funding Affected the Population or Interventions Examined?

09/01/2007

Initiatives like the New York City Frequent Users of Jail and Shelter Initiative and New Jerseys PROMISE Initiative are among the most recent and most ambitious attempts to address homelessness among people released from incarceration and redirect public resources from unproductive to cost-effective uses. These efforts hold promise in their attempts to link interventions for persons who are homeless leaving incarceration directly to potential cost savings. Yet these programs, through providing housing and intensive case management, are expensive in and of themselves. While such costs can be recouped by working with the most services-needy individuals, such an approach is more costly for the majority of persons who do not use public services extensively. This leads to two questions. First, should such services be based on the promise of cost savings when such cost savings are only likely to be realized among a small segment of the target population? Second, can less services-intensive approaches be developed to provide services at less expense to persons who do not need the high level of services that is typically provided through current supportive housing programs?

Like the majority of interventions for justice-involved homeless persons, these initiatives are ultimately downstream measures that serve individuals only after incarceration (and/or homelessness) has already been experienced. Few programs and interventions have been able to intervene with homeless individuals at the front door of the criminal justice system. While interventions such as mental health courts and jail diversion programs are growing in number and sophistication, these programs either fail to extend their reach to homeless persons or lack housing-related assistance. Furthermore, the homeless courts and diversion initiatives that do exist have a limited impact in that they primarily focus on homeless individuals who are arrested for quality of life offenses, and are not designed to provide alternative sentences to persons facing prison terms due to more serious offenses (e.g., felonies). Only one existing supportive housing effort, the Maryland Community Criminal Justice Treatment Program, offers permanent supportive housing to clients diverted from criminal justice custody (Council of State Governments, 2002). Thus, one area for needed programmatic exploration and expansion is the creation of combined housing and services interventions linked to alternatives to incarceration or jail diversion programs.

A resolution to the current jurisdictional controversy over individuals who are or become homeless upon leaving correctional institutions is a necessary prerequisite to any large-scale attempt to stem the growth in the number of persons entering homelessness after leaving incarceration. Indeed, it seems unlikely that any significant impact on rates of post-incarceration homelessness can be made by the current miniscule number of boutique projects funded through a patchwork of funding streams diverted from their original intent. While programming such as the Frequent Users of Jail and Shelter Initiative provide a promising prototype, there is currently no framework for the adoption of such a model on the scale necessary to make a substantial impact on reducing the overlap between incarceration and homelessness. And until this area is viewed as falling specifically under criminal justice, homeless services, or some other jurisdictional purview, programs such as are described here will continue to operate on a small scale.

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