Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Incarceration and Homelessness. What Has Changed Since 1998?


Criminal justice involvement among people who are homeless is hardly new: jails and detention facilities have historically served as de facto institutions for persons who were homeless when they were picked up either for violating vagrancy laws or as a benevolent means of quartering (Hopper, 2003). Likewise, shelter operators and other homeless housing providers have long reported seeing high rates of people with recent experiences in correctional settings among their clientele. Some providers of homeless shelters have anecdotally reported rates of formerly incarcerated people as high as 70 percent (Cho, 2004), while a national survey of providers of homeless services conducted in 1996 found that [a]ltogether, 54 percent [of persons receiving homeless services] have some experience of incarceration (Burt et al., 1999).

What is new is a growing level of concern. In terms of reentry, this concern has manifested itself in a changing political climate in which there is a greater receptiveness towards attending to problems related to reentry (Suellentrop, 2006). A recent analysis by Jacobson (2005) suggests that developments in the current political climate may further facilitate efforts to increase programming to address the needs of the formerly incarcerated. In this argument, the huge swell in the prison population, negative public opinions about crime and public safety, and interest in curbing or rethinking public spending practices all create a window of opportunity for policymakers and leaders to create and implement programs that hold the promise of slowing incarceration rates, reducing demand for emergency public services, and ultimately saving or making better use of public dollars. Jacobson argues that evaluation of existing practice  for its cost-effectiveness with respect to corrections and other public system utilization  is critical, thus furthering the case for supporting evaluation research.

Attending to the needs of persons with histories of incarceration has become a more bipartisan issue, with the Bush Administration first providing $100 million in funds towards reentry initiatives in 2001 under the Severe and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, and then providing a major impetus for action with Bushs call, in what would become known as the Prisoner Reentry Initiative, for allocating $300 million in funding towards reentry initiatives in his 2004 State of the Union Address. This was followed by the Second Chance Act, a bill that proposed allocating $100 million over two years to help states address reentry issues and that narrowly missed passage by Congress in 2006. This bill represents a start, as considerably more resources would be needed to match the magnitude of the reentry problem. But such beginnings encourage hope that the policy atmosphere will be more open to addressing the needs of those released from jails and prisons now than it has been during the decades-long growth in the incarcerated population.

In the last several years there has also been increased policy emphasis on ending (as opposed to managing) homelessness. More than 200 communities around the country have recently committed themselves to 10-year plans to end homelessness (Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2006; Cunningham et al., 2006). A particular target for many of these plans is the chronic elements of this homeless population. Chronically homeless refers to persons who have been homeless for extended periods, often have one or more disabilities, and disproportionately use other public services and institutions, including jails and prisons. These plans to end homelessness are increasingly seeking to bypass emergency shelters and transitional housing, instead placing persons who are homeless directly into permanent housing with support services, when needed. Insofar as these renewed efforts at addressing homelessness have the capacity and the will to specifically respond to incarceration, this policy focus also promises to be receptive to ameliorating the nexus between homelessness and incarceration.

Both from the reentry and homelessness perspectives, there are grounds to believe that increased attention will be focused on addressing the nexus of incarceration and homelessness. This is, however, still an issue in its infancy. As such, there is a particular need for research that outlines the parameters of this problem and provides evidence for what approaches can effectively address this problem. It is these areas that provide the foci for this paper.

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