By: Amanda Nunes and Dana Tocel
Homelessness and the criminal justice system profoundly connect. Many incarcerated individuals are homeless because of the lack of resources provided to them before and after their sentence. Additionally, many find themselves in jail due to arrests for low-level offenses. They disconnect from their support system, and many of them face job and housing discrimination, further establishing a homelessness-jail cycle.
Specifically, this cycle disproportionately affects minority groups, including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx, because they overrepresent groups of homelessness and those in jail. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice found that between the ages of 18 and 19, Black males were 12.7 times as likely and Hispanic males were 3.3 times as likely to be imprisoned compared to white males. Many incarcerated individuals’ convictions lead to them losing their jobs, housing, and personal relationships. Therefore, after their release and completion of their sentence, many do not have support.
In addition to having no resources to adapt to a new life outside of prison, they are also highly discriminated against when trying to acquire housing and employment, which leads to this cycle of incarceration and subsequent homelessness. Many formerly incarcerated individuals end up entering homeless shelters, overwhelmingly due to the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 does not stipulate that intentional discrimination occurs if a housing provider treats individuals differently because of their criminal record.
Much of the homelessness of incarcerated individuals is due in part to the multiple convictions that these individuals acquire. The Prison Policy Initiative found that those with multiple convictions are ten times more likely, and those incarcerated only once are seven times more likely to become homeless compared to the general public.
Homeless individuals are more likely to interact with police due to nonviolent offenses. The California Policy Lab found that unsheltered homeless individuals surveyed between 2015 and 2017 reported ten times the number of interactions with police in the past six months compared to reports by people living in shelters. Individuals experiencing homelessness were nine times more likely than individuals in shelters to have spent one night in jail.
Essentially, this cycle of jail leading to homelessness does not help individuals get access to housing and services, which they are in dire need of. Instead of providing incarcerated individuals with substance use treatment or mental health services which they might need, the “homelessness-jail cycle” persists.
To make matters worse, there are recent reports that state incarcerated individuals are suffering from COVID-19 prior to their release. As of October 9th, 33 NJDOC employees tested positive, eighteen incarcerated individuals tested positive, and none have passed away from the virus. According to The Trentonian, these facilities are failing to provide incarcerated individuals with the necessary amount of masks for their safety, they have been given only two masks and are told to reuse them.
During a recent interview with The Trentonian, Edward Peoples, an incarcerated individual, states, “Every time someone comes to my cell and drops a tray off, I wonder if the virus is on there…This is mental torture…We’re not being treated as we should.” Aside from Governor Murphy and officials disregarding the health of many incarcerated individuals who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms, most of the prison population does not qualify for release under Murphy’s edict. Not only do these ongoing issues affect them from potentially contracting COVID-19, but they also impede their chances of returning home.
In the past few months, with the impact of COVID-19, the way that police interact with individuals experiencing homelessness has changed. Those incarcerated individuals who unfortunately do not have a home to come back to are often in search of shelter in the form of housing but need to, first, get a job to support that endeavor. Undoubtedly, though, studies have found that formerly incarcerated individuals earn approximately 52% less than others after their return, and for those individuals with felony convictions, 22% less. However, that is only the case for those individuals who can get past the application stage since many employers discriminate against incarcerated individuals. Also, with the pandemic, job availability is already scarcely low, and the OECD expects unemployment to reach 10% by the end of 2020.
Due to the prejudices, discrimination laws, and the recent impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated individuals, the “homelessness-jail cycle” persists. Incarcerated individuals not only face obstacles involving reinstating themselves into society following their incarceration, but they also face the harrowing struggle of a lack of resources and opportunities, which overall perpetuates the cycle further.