How COVID-19 Worsens the Housing Crunch for Returning Citizens

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It took Kilroy Watkins several months to get transitional housing in order to be released from an Illinois prison. The pandemic has made reentry even harder for inmates still behind bars. Photo by Paul Beaty

Kilroy Watkins needed a place to stay.

After serving half of a 55-year sentence, Watkins was eligible for parole under Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) day-for-day good conduct sentencing guidelines.

Although he could depart Lawrence Correctional Center, a medium security facility four hours south of Chicago, he still would be under legal custody of IDOC for the next three years subject to being reincarcerated at any time.

As a condition of his January 2019 parole, Watkins would need to submit to random visits from a parole officer, get a job, remain in Illinois and maintain a place to live.

For all the skills he gained from his legal and academic pursuits while behind bars, securing housing was proving to be the toughest hurdle of all.

Most of his immediate family had moved away from Illinois. So as his parole date drew near, his anxiety grew. After almost 30 years behind bars, where would he go?

“It became very challenging and stressful,” Watkins recalled. “I was in crunch time. What family that relatively know me have space for a grown man to come into their circle?”

Housing Shortage: A Barrier to Reentry

Even as advocates across the country have pursued in earnest early and compassionate release for non-violent, health-challenged inmates threatened in overcrowded prisons by a deadly virus, Watkins story shows how these calls for early release can’t happen under the current reentry housing protocols.

It can be hard for people returning from a prison sentence to secure the housing they need to successfully reenter communities, said Ahmadou Dramé, director of policy, advocacy and legislation at the Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based reentry group. And the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how difficult it can be.

Prior to the outbreak, newly release people without other options might end up in homeless shelters, but due to social distancing guidelines those facilities are now less of an option.

“What’s happening to folks with records who are being released during this pandemic as it relates to housing, or what’s happening to people who are incarcerated who could be released but don’t have housing is a tragedy,” Dramé said in an interview with The Crime Report.

The Pandemic and Prisoner Release

Even as correctional facilities continue to be hotspots for COVID-19 transmission, a relatively small number of people in prisons in Illinois and across the country have been granted early release.

“Prisons are releasing almost no one, especially when compared to local jails. But state prisons are filled with people with preexisting medical conditions that put them a heightened risk for complications from this virus,” says the Prison Policy Initiative, which has documented early releases due to COVID-19 since the outbreak began in March 2020.

For parolees of Illinois state facilities, the problem begins with the fact that there simply aren’t enough transitional beds for all those coming home who need them.

In the initial weeks of the outbreak, Illinois relaxed restrictions on early release due to good behavior and released about 1,000 prisoners who were close to their departure dates. But that’s about the same number people for whom Illinois, pre-pandemic, has room in its current stock of transitional housing.

For the roughly 25,000 people who depart Illinois prisons each year, the state maintains four adult transitional housing centers, which have room for just under 1,000 returnees.

For many,  the shortage of post-incarceration housing can derail reentry.

“The mere act of not having a place to go can be a technical violation,” Dramé said. “A technical violation can land somebody back into incarceration.” In fiscal year 2019, thirty percent of admissions to IDOC facilities were due to technical parole violations.

Even as the correctional system in Illinois procures short-term post-incarceration housing for some departing detainees, it isn’t available for as many people who need it.

“The way that most resources are structured is that it’s hard for a person who doesn’t have a mental health or substance abuse type situation,” Dramè said.

In fiscal year 2016, IDOC covered one to three month placements for 5,804 people within “challenging populations,” including those with orders for electronic monitoring, people in treatment for substance abuse, with mental health issues, nursing care needs and sex offenders.

Watkins didn’t fit any of these categories.

Maintaining that police officers tortured him into making the confession that resulted in his incarceration, Watkins spent his lengthy sentence as a law clerk pursuing justice for fellow inmates while seeking to build a case to overturn convictions based on a statement he signed at age 21 claiming responsibility for robbery and murder.

With plans to continue his legal fight, Watkins knew while serving his final months that just any housing situation wouldn’t work — even if his remaining relatives in Chicago opened their doors.

“The few that’s left behind have families and children now,” he said. “They can put me on their couch or in their basement, but they really didn’t have much other than that to help me transcend back into society.”

Stigma Derails Reentry

Securing housing can be a particular challenge for long-term detainees like Watkins, who is returning to the community with a record and without a credit or rental history, public interest law and policy center BPI wrote in its 2018 report No Place to Call Home: Navigating Reentry Housing in Chicago.

“When prompted to describe their experiences of applying for rental housing, many participants explained that they stopped applying after experiencing three or four rejections. Some were simply discouraged, while others could not afford to continue paying application fees,” BPI wrote in its report.

Dramé also has seen these challenges among Safer Foundation clients.

“It’s almost impossible for a lot of people to actually reenter,” he says. “A lot of times housing providers are inclined to not open up their doors to people with records — even if they are employed.”

Public housing policies also have been a barrier for released people seeking to reintegrate into their community.

“We see a lot of resources coming down from the federal government to create more housing at the local level, but what we’re finding is that in many instances they are being used in a way that exclude people with records,” Dramé said. “If you’ve ever done anything that we think is a risk to personal safety, we’re not going to accept you into this shelter. We don’t care if the pandemic is going on.”

Local policies also may prohibit people returning from moving in with a relative who lives in subsidized housing. In its report, BPI recommends changing this policy.

“If staying with relatives for a period of time helps individuals get back on their feet, housing authorities and private landlords alike should permit them to do so.”

A Burden on Families

Even as a parolee’s family might serve as an important support system, some returning citizens like Watkins can’t leave the state to join them. For other parolees their return can be an emotional and financial burden.

“Connections with family could be really fragile,” Keesha Middlemass author of Convicted and Condemned: The Politics and Policy of Prisoner Reentry told The Crime Report. “Those families that are able to provide housing for their loved one are under an enormous amount of pressure — particularly if someone is now unemployed due to COVID-19.”

Thus, released people with records often end up cycling back and forth into jail and prison because family members can’t always offer a stable place to return, Middlemass said.

The pre-pandemic story of a newly released prisoner who moved in with his sister as told in The Trouble With Reentry, a report by the John Howard Association (JHA), illustrates this dilemma.

Although she was barely getting by, the parolee’s sister offered her brother an older model phone, clothing and hygiene products. But the arrangement didn’t last very long.

“The added financial stress for his sister of having her brother financially dependent on her, coupled with fear and resentment that he would not find a job or would return to bad habits and using drugs as a coping mechanism, led to many fights between the siblings,” JHA, a watchdog group for the Illinois correctional system, wrote in the October 2019 report.

Two months later, he moved out to stay on the couch at a friend’s apartment.

Dramé says he has also seen this challenge among parolees during COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re finding that at least since this pandemic has begun about twenty percent of the clients who’ve come to us who had some sort of initial housing situation lost it and they need a subsequent housing situation.”

Subsidizing Reentry

When inmates return home after gaining early release due to COVID-19, officials should subsidize the families that facilitate their reentry, says Morris Reed, CEO of Westside Health Authority.

“I think a policy needs to be put in place for caregiver funding to households who are helping with the transition of people being released,” said Reed, who through his community health center in Austin, one of a half dozen neighborhoods where a majority of Illinois parolees return, has observed the challenges families face when a loved one returns home.

“You’re saving money when you early release due to the COVID, but you are going to release them back to their families with nothing?”

For Illinois to be able to release more non-violent and vulnerable prisoners during and after the pandemic, Dramè agrees that greater economic support could help parolees succeed.

“There should be a subsidy of some sort that comes along with anyone who is paroled out to live with a love one because we know that technical violations are grounds for someone to re-incarcerate,” Dramé said.

Policy analysts at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management agree.

“Many households are facing additional financial pressure because of the pandemic; taking on an additional household member would add to this burden,” it wrote in the April 2020 report, Recommendations for Rapid Release and Reentry. “Agencies should consider living stipends to incentivize family or friends to house early releasees.”

Policymakers should also develop more resources for community-based organizations like WHA to provide housing for people with records, Dramé said .

“We need the resources to acquire the properties that are conducive to providing [reentry housing] in an efficient way — situations like multi-unit type structures so that an individual who’s transitioning back into a community can have a room to stay in that’s their own,” he said.

Policymakers also should make put greater effort on helping returning citizens meet basic economic needs so that they can to successfully participate in job skill programming, which has been the focus of most reentry funding. JHA said.

“Those who are most in need of treatment and reentry training programs cannot access them because they instead must focus their time and energy on meeting their daily needs for survival: food, clothing, housing, transportation, a safe place to sleep.”

After several anxious moments Watkins got accepted into a six-month reentry residential program, but he’s not yet out of the woods.

Although released a year before the pandemic, Watkins still is impacted by marketplace barriers to housing, even as he has found employment opportunities that include working on an assembly line at a factory and giving speeches about his experiences to university students.

Nonetheless, with one year left on parole, his housing situation is just as taxing and tenuous as it was 24 months ago when he talked to fellow inmates about postponing his first chance at freedom.

“I said well, you know, I have nowhere to go. I can serve my parole time [in prison], which is half of three years — I’ve got to give them an additional eighteen months,” he recalls considering.

“Some guys were for that. They said ‘Hey man, you don’t want parole around following you in your business no way. You just did 28 years. You can do 18 more months,’” they advised .

“I’m like, Yeah, if that’s what it comes down to,” he recalls responding.

“And some guys were like, ‘Hey man, Get the hell out of this place. Why stay any longer than you could? If any place take you — take it.’”

Cassie M. Chew is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Ventures Justice Reporting Fellow. This story was published with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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