Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. Policy and Institutional Context


This link between incarceration and homelessness can be viewed as a second wave of deinstitutionalization. Deinstitutionalization is a term traditionally used in reference to the exodus of persons treated for mental illness from psychiatric hospitals to the community (i.e., the first wave), and it has parallels to the more recent interactions between carceral institutions and homelessness. The problematic implementation of deinstitutionalization left many persons with mental illness to enter the community unprepared and unsupported, and has been widely thought to be the reason why, from the 1980s on, persons with mental illness figured prominently among the rolls of the homeless population. By comparison, rates of shelter use have been found to be higher among people exiting prison than among people exiting state psychiatric hospitals (Metraux & Culhane, 2004). The number of people exiting prisons and jails to the community was 650,000 and 9 million, respectively, in 2004 alone (Brown, 2006; Harrison & Beck, 2006); just the number of those released from prison alone dwarfs the number deinstitutionalized from psychiatric hospitals (Mechanic & Rochefort, 1990).

Actors involved in this current round of deinstitutionalization involving the criminal justice system can learn from some of the missteps of the previous round of deinstitutionalization involving the mental health system. One key lesson from deinstitutionalization of persons from psychiatric hospitals has been the importance of housing. For the deinstitutionalized mentally ill population, housing had been viewed by community mental health services as a public welfare function, and was largely ignored until homelessness became linked with mental illness. Only as a result of this link did there emerge a consensus in the community mental health field that housing is, in fact, a mental health service and a prerequisite to effectively providing other forms of community-based services (Metraux, 2002). This is an example of where the criminal justice system appears to have learned little from the mistakes made in deinstitutionalizing persons who are mentally ill. The lack of jurisdictional clarity over the problem of post-incarceration homelessness means that people who are homeless at the point of their discharge from incarceration fall under the purview of neither the corrections system, which views its jurisdiction over inmates as ending at discharge, nor the homeless assistance system, as individuals leaving institutions are not considered presently homeless and are therefore ineligible for most forms of homeless assistance. Cho (2004) attributes this jurisdictional gap to a condition of isolationist policymaking, in which sectors of government define their spheres of responsibility too narrowly thus leaving some individuals to become institutional refugees. As Black and Cho (2004) explain, the result is ultimately a scarcity of public funding and resources that target persons who are homeless upon their release from incarceration. As a result, people leaving incarceration enter an uncertain transitional space between institution and community in which services are fragmented at the point where they are most vulnerable (Hopper & Baumohl, 1994).

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