The Revolving Door Between Homelessness and Prison

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homeless teen

Photo by Robert Scifo via Wikimedia Commons

People experiencing homelessness are 11 times more likely to face incarceration compared to the general population, and formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless, a new study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) found.

The report, titled “Return to Nowhere: The Revolving Door Between Incarceration and Homelessness,” is the fourth report in the TCJC series “One Size FAILS All.”

“We suspected that many of the problems in our communities for which elected officials seek criminal justice system solutions are actually problems of homelessness, mental illness, and untreated substance use disorder,” said Doug Smith, TCJC Senior Policy Analyst and report co-author– who himself has experienced homelessness, justice system involvement, mental illness, and substance use disorder.

“That’s why we wrote this report – to dig into the data and create informed policy recommendations that can address the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.”

Significantly, data showed homelessness and justice system involvement are strongly linked with mental illness.

People who are homeless at the time of arrest are more likely to have a mental illness, and of the more than two million people booked into a Texas jail each year, nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women have a serious mental health condition.

“This contributes to the unsustainable increase in people with serious mental illness winding up behind bars,” authors said.

Bailey Gray, the report’s co-author — who now serves on the Homeless Outreach Street Team in Austin– stated in the report, “Without community supports in place, many individuals leave correctional facilities only to enter, or re-enter, homelessness. Mental illness, substance use, and lack of employment make it more difficult for some individuals to escape this pattern. It is our ethical responsibility to create a collaborative approach to solving this issue.”

Researchers made the following policy recommendations:

  • Eliminating harmful city ordinances that exacerbate homelessness without addressing the issues they purport to solve;
  • Addressing housing restrictions for people with past justice system involvement;
  • Creating housing-first policies that do not require people to access (underfunded) behavioral health systems before getting off the streets;
  • Improving reentry supports for people released from correctional facilities without a place to live.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

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