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Homelessness and housing insecurity among former prisoners


It’s not a secret. The rate of homelessness in Los Angeles surpasses nearly every major city in the country.

If you need an example, visit Downtown and travel the grimy streets littered with dozens of poverty-stricken castaways. Military veterans account for a large share of those living in tents under freeways and on street corners throughout the city. However, in recent years, the sting of homelessness has unleashed its wrath on young African American males, particularly those with a criminal past.

In 2014, Huffington Post contributor Harriet McDonald wrote a compelling story about the perilous realities that await Black males who’ve been chewed up and spit out by the country’s justice system:

“When you make it out, you’ll be psychologically scarred. You’ll be broke. If your mother isn’t around or if she’s living in poverty, you’ll likely be homeless, too. And since you spent most of your adolescence watching your back instead of receiving an education, you never finished high school. There’s only one way for you to support yourself now: Selling more drugs. So the cycle starts, all over again. This ‘story’ isn’t fiction. It is the reality of the cycle of incarceration for countless young, poor, undereducated, Black men in the United States. And it is a national travesty.”


L.A. County has nation’s largest homeless population

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Los Angeles County has the highest number of chronically homeless individuals in the nation. In addition, it has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless.  Between 2014 and 2015, Los Angeles experienced a 55 percent increase in chronically homeless individuals—the largest increase in the nation.

The demographic trend in homelessness in Los Angeles is the unfortunate baseline for homelessness in both the state and nation, reports Black Voice News. According to the report, throughout the city and particularly in South Los Angeles and along Skid Row—“Black” is the face of homelessness. In Los Angeles, Blacks are only nine percent of the city’s population and yet account for 47 percent of the homeless population.

The United States has experienced dramatic increases in both incarceration rates and the population of poorly housed or homeless persons since the 1980s. These marginalized populations reportedly have strong overlaps, with many people being poor, minority, and from an urban area. While there is a clear relationship between homelessness, housing insecurity, and incarceration, the extent and nature of this relationship is not yet adequately understood.

The National Institutes of Health finds relatively low rates of outright homelessness among former prisoners, but very high rates of housing insecurity, much of which is linked to recidivism and absconding (from probation). Los Angeles appears to be a perfect storm of circumstances conspiring against Black males, with the end result being huge numbers forced to fend for themselves on the streets, staying in places like Downtown’s growing “tent city” locations.

Finding work is major concern

ThinkProgress, a political news blog, conducted interviews with members of the homeless population and found that a big part of the problem is that these persons are unable to find work, reports the Atlanta Black Star. An African-American homeless man who goes by the name of “Greedy D” told ThinkProgress that although he has a culinary arts degree and went through the Job Corps, he is unable to find work at the age of 30. A car accident, debt, lack of a support system and generally bad luck landed him on the streets, he said. Greedy said his race makes things much harder for him.

“I’m an African American, I’m scruffy,” he told ThinkProgress. “I have a lot of stereotypes [like] “he only listens to rap music,” “he might be mean to me,” or he “ might yell or talk with a loud tone.”

Greedy says Black men have to work harder in the U.S. “If you know that you have people against you, or you know about racism, you know about what this country’s history is,” he griped. “You have to over-perform at your best.”

Michael Volz, a caseworker who served the homeless for more than six years through the King County Jail in Seattle, Wash. and later with Veterans Affairs, told ThinkProgress that he’s required to ask clients about whether they have a criminal record when they are seeking public housing and employment services.

He said this is a common response: “I’m a Black man. Of course. Of course I’ve been arrested. I’m homeless … I’m harassed by the police. I’m arrested constantly. It’s a huge barrier.”

“They’re right,” Volz assured. “It’s a huge barrier.”

Escaping a toxic environment

According to McDonald, the only way to save “these young men’s futures is to get them out of toxic, hopeless environments and equip them with the education, skills, experience and training they need to support themselves permanently.

“In short, they need opportunity and a path to self-sufficiency,” McDonald said. “And our country needs effective alternatives to incarceration for young, nonviolent offenders.”

She added, “If we don’t, this generation’s children—and the children of their children—will get caught in exactly the same cycle. And we can’t afford that—not financially, not morally and certainly not as a nation founded on the ideals of equality, opportunity and freedom.”

2. Calling the sidewalk home


Thomas has lived on the streets for the past two years. He’s 67-years-old, and after losing his job, the sidewalks have been the place he’s unfortunately had to called home. He’s looking for safe housing where he can feel at ease, but without the opportunity to find meaningful employment, the inability to secure safe housing is his new reality.

Beside Thomas sat Willie Smith, aka “Bishop,” a 47-year-old former felon who is not as new to life on the street.

“I’ve been on and off the street my whole life,” said Bishop.

There are many people like Thomas and Bishop who, because of unemployment or criminal history or just the incapability of earning a living wage, find themselves without a home. Thomas and Bishop are just two of Los Angeles’s estimated 58,000 homeless people.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), Los Angeles showed a staggering 23-percent rise in homelessness since 2016 where there were a reported 46,874 homeless people residing on the streets.

Good Shepard Center

Because of this sharp uptick in homelessness in one year, organizations serving the homeless in Los Angeles are seeing a rapid change in the way they conduct business.

For example, the Good Shepherd Center for women and children is dedicated to helping the lives of those who’ve been impacted by homelessness but are limited to the number of homeless families they can help, because they focus on providing a better quality of living.

“We are well aware that we can’t provide services for everyone.” said Annmarie Howse, development coordinator for the Good Shepherd Center. “We only allow one to two people per room. We believe in quality rather than quantity.”

Hoswe mentioned how the majority of dollars the Good Shepherd Center needs to operate are funded by grants and a fundraiser gala, and not particularly by the state of California.

Imagining how some homeless services centers have a difficult time while trying to generate funding calls attention to how hard it may be for homeless people to get off the street.

“We get very little funding through the government,” said Howse. “We mostly receive grants, from foundations and independent donors. We have to do a lot of funding for ourselves through fundraisers.”

While offering 90-day housing accommodations, the Good Shepherd Center offers services to approximately 93 women and 40 children, and serves up to 1,000 people per year. And while the center has operated since 1984, officials there say they have witnessed a change in the way they operate due to the large increase in clients.

“Because there is a push is for rapid re-housing, a large majority of women used to stay for a year, but we’re having to push women out a lot faster,” said Howse.

Housing in Los Angeles is a challenge.

Can Measure H make a difference?

“There’s not enough homes for people,” said Carolyn Pruitt, communications specialist for LAHSA. “There’s a gap in available units that are affordable.”

Although Pruitt doesn’t believe that housing and homelessness directly correlate, she does believe that the cost of living in Los Angeles is very demanding.

“From 2004 through 2014 the median rent in Los Angeles increased 28 percent, while the median income decreased by 8 percent,” said Pruitt. “Real income is decreasing while the cost of living increases.”

Pruitt mentioned Measure H, a sales tax initiative approved by voters dedicating an annual $355 million to combating homelessness with re-housing with affordable housing, funding homeless prevention for families and individuals, including youth, and improving shelter systems, and Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion dollar bond that proposes to build 13,000 units of permanent housing, 10,000 of them being used for family housing.

Pruitt agrees that the rental market in Los Angeles is what she calls “ridiculous”.

“There’s a gap in available units that are affordable,” said Pruitt. “Measure H is trying to create more affordable housing.”

Pruitt explains affordable housing as: “Housing that is basically below low market rate, is often subsidized, and may be owned by the housing authority or non-profit organizations.”

Due to funding, re-housing the homeless in affordable housing can be an issue for services that offer accommodations, but Measure H is supposed to help alleviate some financial struggles.

Life on the street

Bishop has been on-and-off the street his whole life. After bouts with drug abuse and incarceration, he is looking forward to a better life, starting with re-entry programs.

Project 180— a re-entry program dedicated to helping returning citizens enter back into society after incarceration— as Bishop recounts, asked him not to return to the premises because he was “too aggressive”.

Bishop suffers from anger-related issues.

“As an organization, if I have a mental health disorder, instead of pushing me to the side, you should be helping me.” said Bishop.

“After living on the streets for so long, and dealing with a lot of issues coming in-and-out of jail, you’re bound to have some type of mental issues”

LAHSA reports that an approximate 16,000 homeless people have a mental health related issue.

As Bishop continues on his journey to find housing, he acknowledges that his situation of homelessness  is what he calls a “comfort zone.”

“Where we are is a ‘comfort zone’ because there are people who care about us,” he said.