Recently the Los Angeles Times editorial board supported the Los Angeles Housing Authority’s decision to allow people leaving prison to qualify for a small pool of vouchers set aside for homeless people. Let me second that idea. I study homelessness and it’s well known in my field that prison and other correctional facilities are so-called “feeder intuitions” into shelters. Approximately 5 percent of single adults who enter shelters spent the previous night in a correctional facility, according to HUD data. Even more become homeless eventually. Spending your first night out in a homeless shelter—what kind of start is that? One that could result in recidivism and a quick return to prison. And too many do return. The evidence says as many as two-thirds of those who exit prison are rearrested within three years. That’s not good for returning prisoners, their families, the communities they leave, or, for that matter, taxpayers. Prison stays are expensive. Really expensive.
The Los Angeles Housing Authority is onto something with its housing voucher plan. Housing can be a platform for those exiting prison. That is, housing can provide more than just shelter; it can be a base from which people improve their lives. The link between recidivism and stable housing makes sense intuitively: persons with stable housing may be less likely to engage in criminal activities. They may also be more likely to find and keep jobs, reunify with their families, and become productive members of society.
As my colleagues Jocelyn Fontaine and Jennifer Biess note in a recent paper, we need more evidence to empirically document these links. That’s why we should be watching the Los Angeles experiment closely and encouraging other housing authorities to loosen “one-strike” provisions that keep people with criminal histories out of subsidized housing. Keeping people in housing could mean keeping them out of prison. Now that’s a novel idea.