Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. Introduction


Over the past 25 years the United States has seen large increases in both incarceration and homelessness. The jail and prison population went from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to 2.1 million in 2004 (Pastore & MacGuire, 2005), while the homeless population transformed from a small collection of individuals stereotyped as bums and winos to a diverse assortment of families and individuals that, according to best estimates, now include at least 2.3 million who are homeless at some point in a year (Burt et al., 1999). Little is known, however, about the relationship between these two concurrent phenomena. Although service providers have long pointed to anecdotal evidence about the overlap between these two populations, awareness of this nexus from a research perspective is relatively recent and in its nascent stages.

This paper presents evidence for evaluating two assumptions. The first assumption is that persons who are homeless are at increased risk for incarceration and, conversely, release from jail or prison leaves a person particularly vulnerable to an episode of homelessness. Much of the research on the homelessness-incarceration nexus is still documenting parameters. Specifically, this includes the rates at which people cross over from one to the other; the proximate factors associated with an increased probability of such crossovers; and more general explanations of why such a high degree of crossover exists.

The second assumption concerns the centrality of housing, coupled with supports (in whatever form they may take) that help to maintain this housing, in preventing both homelessness and incarceration among persons at risk for both. For those who lack the resources and supports to obtain secure housing upon release, providing such housing stands to mitigate the risks for both homelessness and reincarceration. Evaluating this assumption involves examining the more general experience faced by persons who reenter the community from jails and prisons, as well as examining empirical evidence on outcomes related to interventions that involve housing and supports. Service and housing providers have given limited attention and resources to addressing the needs presented by persons with histories of both incarceration and homelessness. When they have done so, the tendency has been to adapt other models rather than to develop specific interventions focusing on the specific problems presented by this population. Interventions that do exist, whether adapted from other housing models or designed specifically to address the needs of this population, typically are ahead of the research literature on best practices. This paper will review the range of housing approaches, featuring specific housing programs within this continuum, and what, in the absence of extensive evidence in this field, is considered to be best practice.

In describing what will be covered, it is also necessary to outline the limits as to what will be covered here. Community reentry (for persons released from incarceration) and homelessness are both broad topics that touch on a range of other topics. Focusing on the immediate nexus of these two topics necessarily steals attention from areas with a less direct bearing. For example, responses toward this problem do not, by and large, address more general policies regarding incarceration and housing, although this will ultimately be the solution to this problem. Similarly, more general topics such as employment, healthcare, education, and stigma figure into understanding this nexus, but are only touched on in this paper. And some related topics, such as how incarceration of an adult may lead to collateral homelessness for family members, are important but lack research and interventions that provide clearer understanding. This need for future research is addressed in the final section. Opportunities here abound, as knowledge of the nature of the problem and evidence to support current intervention practices still contain numerous gaps with respect to many key questions.

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