Homelessness and the criminal justice system are deeply intertwined. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to interact with the justice system because being forced to live outside can lead to citations or arrests for low-level offenses like loitering or sleeping in parks. And people currently or previously involved in the justice system, who are often disconnected from supports and face housing and job discrimination, are more likely to experience homelessness. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are also overrepresented among both groups because of systemic and structural racism in housing, criminal justice, employment, and other systems.
It’s critical that local leaders understand this connection between homelessness and the criminal justice system to develop strategies that better address homelessness, reduce the use of jails, build stronger communities, and ensure everyone has access to safe and stable housing. We gathered evidence from Urban Institute research and other experts to explain the homelessness-jail cycle, and how to break it.
1. People with conviction histories are more likely to experience homelessness
A jail or prison stay can lead to the loss of a person's job and housing and sever their personal connections, leaving them without supports after their release. People with conviction histories also face discrimination in housing and employment that can prevent them from finding a home and stable job, leaving homelessness as their last resort.
More than 50,000 people enter shelters directly from correctional facilities a year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. That figure doesn’t include the unknown number of people who are forced to live outside immediately after incarceration or who enter shelters after a period of instability following incarceration.
Furthermore, the risk of homelessness increases for people with multiple convictions. The Prison Policy Initiative found that people who have been incarcerated more than once are 13 times more likely than the general public to experience homelessness, whereas people who have been incarcerated once are 7 times more likely. Although these data are available only for people incarcerated in prisons (not jails), they show how people cycle between incarceration and homelessness.
2. Experiencing unsheltered homelessness increases people’s interactions with the justice system
Without investments in evidence-based solutions, communities often use police to respond to people living outside, criminalizing homelessness and issuing citations and arrests for minor “public nuisance” crimes—such as camping, loitering, and public urination—that people wouldn’t have to endure if they had a place to call home.
According to the California Policy Lab, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness who were surveyed between 2015 and 2017 reported an average of 21 contacts with police in the past six months, 10 times the number reported by people living in shelters. People experiencing unsheltered homelessness were also 9 times more likely than people in shelters to report having spent at least one night in jail in the past six months.
Such frequent interactions with the justice system can trap people in a homelessness-jail cycle, rotating them in and out of jails and emergency public services like shelters, emergency rooms, and detox facilities. This cycle does nothing to help people access the housing and services they need, such as mental health or substance use treatment.
Beyond harming people’s well-being and failing to connect them with housing and services, the homelessness-jail cycle is also costly for taxpayers. In Denver, where Urban is evaluating the city’s supportive housing social impact bond initiative, a person experiencing long-term homelessness in 2016 had 24 contacts with police over 90 days, including four citations, one arrest, one jail stay, and 18 other kinds of contacts, such as being ordered to move along. This 90-day period cost the city nearly $4,000 and represents the experience of just one person among the hundreds in Denver stuck in the homelessness-jail cycle.
Denver previously calculated that providing safety net services to 250 people experiencing long-term homelessness and cycling in and out of jail and other emergency services cost the city an average of $7.3 million a year. And Los Angeles found that people experiencing homelessness accounted for $65.5 million in jail costs and $5.6 million in booking fees in the 2014–15 fiscal year.
4. A Housing First approach can break the homelessness-jail cycle
Under the Housing First approach, programs connect people with stable housing with no preconditions so that they can improve other aspects of their lives. Housing First is the only strategy proven to break the homelessness-jail cycle. For people with complex needs, this approach is often used in permanent supportive housing programs, which combine long-term rental assistance and supportive services designed to help people maintain housing stability.
An evaluation of the Frequent Users Service Enhancement supportive housing program in New York City found that after two years, 86 percent of participants remained housed (compared with only 42 percent of the comparison group, who didn’t receive supportive housing services), and they spent 40 percent less time in jail. The annual jail and shelter costs for each person in supportive housing were more than $8,000 lower than for the comparison group, and their crisis health care costs were more than $7,000 lower.
The Frequent Users Service Enhancement program cost roughly $23,000 a person in total annual public funding, but 67 percent of that cost was offset by a nearly $16,000 average annual reduction in jail, shelter, and crisis health care costs. This shows that supportive housing can help people improve their lives while offsetting some public costs by mitigating the homelessness-jail cycle’s harmful consequences.
5. Local leaders can ensure COVID-19-related changes in police responses to homelessness aren’t temporary
The pandemic has transformed how police interact with people experiencing homelessness. Many cities have reduced their jail populations to lower people’s risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and police are making fewer contacts and arrests. In Denver, after COVID-19 hit, police contacts with and arrests of people experiencing long-term homelessness and frequent arrests fell significantly. Between March 11 and March 31, police had eight fewer interactions a day on average with people in this group compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Urban Institute. Urban used a regression analysis of 2019–2020 Denver Police Department data that controlled for daily weather, day of the week, month, and year.
Responses to COVID-19 show that communities can change their law enforcement practices. But as communities respond to and recover from the pandemic, they can go beyond temporary disruptions of the status quo and consider permanent changes to how they address homelessness. To make their communities’ COVID-19 recoveries more equitable and sustainable, local leaders can stop using punitive tactics that trap people in homelessness-jail cycles and implement evidence-based Housing First strategies that help people access the housing and services they need to achieve stability.
This feature was funded by Arnold Ventures. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
DEVELOPMENT Ben Chartoff
EDITING Zach VeShancey
WRITING Emily Peiffer
We thank our colleagues Devlin Hanson and Mary Cunningham for their contributions to and feedback on this feature.