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Rental Aid in COVID-19 Relief Packages Can Help Formerly Incarcerated People

Using new housing vouchers and short-term rental assistance funded by federal COVID-19 relief packages, communities can greatly expand efforts to help formerly incarcerated people find stable housing, which they cite as among their most urgent needs even in good economic times. Federal policymakers should build on these investments through annual appropriations and an economic recovery bill to provide additional vouchers for low-income people struggling to afford rent, which would help end the cycle between incarceration and homelessness.

Stable housing greatly improves a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of staying out of jail and prison, but people who were formerly incarcerated are nearly ten times as likely to experience homelessness as the general public. The ratio is even higher for Black people who were formerly incarcerated, reflecting a long history of racial discrimination and structural racism in federal, state, and local housing and criminal legal policy. Prospective landlords and employers often turn away applicants with criminal records, making it extremely difficult to locate and afford housing. In addition, few resources are available to help people leaving incarceration find affordable housing — or the employment opportunities, health care, and other services that can help them avoid reincarceration.

People who exit incarceration into homelessness are at heightened risk of returning to jail or prison in part due to the “criminalization” of homelessness. For example, communities often rely on law enforcement to respond to unsheltered homelessness, such as by ticketing or arresting people for sleeping in public places, living in cars, or asking for money or food. Such citations could violate probation or parole terms or generate fees or fines that people experiencing homelessness can’t always pay. These counterproductive policies can lead to additional episodes of incarceration and criminal records that make it even harder to secure housing.

Housing assistance can help break that cycle. Communities can use short-term assistance to support activities that prevent homelessness, such as covering back rent to keep people with criminal records in stable housing or covering a security deposit for someone transitioning back to the community while they look for work. But some formerly incarcerated people, such as those who are experiencing homelessness now or did before entering jail or prison, may need longer-term housing assistance (available for as long as a household needs it) to afford a safe home.

The 2021 American Rescue Plan included both types of assistance: $5 billion for new targeted housing vouchers and $21.6 billion in short-term emergency rental assistance to build on the $25 billion in short-term rental aid provided in the December 2020 COVID-19 relief package. These resources present an important opportunity for communities to scale up efforts to prevent evictions and homelessness, permanently rehouse people experiencing homelessness, and promote racial equity by mitigating the harms from underinvestment, over-policing of communities of color, and mass incarceration.

With the $5 billion for new vouchers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocated 70,000 emergency housing vouchers for people facing some of the greatest hurdles to affordable housing: people experiencing or at risk of homelessness and survivors of domestic violence. This includes people leaving jail stays of 90 days or less who were homeless before entering jail (who are considered homeless) and people leaving incarceration of any duration without a place to live (who are considered at risk of homelessness). In fact, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge has strongly encouraged HUD grantees to utilize these vouchers for formerly incarcerated people.

For this emergency housing voucher program, local homelessness Continuums of Care (CoC) are responsible for determining which individuals and families are eligible for the new vouchers, and then local public housing agencies (PHAs) administer the program. PHAs have much less flexibility in the emergency voucher program than in the regular voucher program to reject applicants with criminal records or substance use disorders. PHAs may review applicants’ criminal records but can only screen for kinds of “criminal activity” or convictions that meet specific criteria and occurred in the last 12 months, with some narrow exceptions. (For instance, PHAs cannot deny these vouchers to people due to a drug-related conviction or arrest.) Reentry services providers, correctional facilities, and community supervision agencies should work with their local CoCs and PHAs to ensure that eligible people leaving incarceration or with criminal records can apply for and receive a voucher.

Communities can use vouchers in coordination with other assistance from COVID-19 relief packages to break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness by matching individuals’ needs with the appropriate level of assistance: short, medium, or long term. The Rescue Plan’s $21.6 billion in emergency rental assistance, which the Treasury Department has allocated to states, territories, and local governments with more than 200,000 residents, allows eligible households to receive up to 18 months of help with rent. States and localities also received more flexible housing and homelessness resources from the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Fiscal Recovery Funds from the Rescue Plan that they can use to fund short- or medium-term rent assistance or other supports for formerly incarcerated people.