MPC releases “Re-Entry Housing Issues in Illinois” to highlight the important role housing plays in reducing recidivism
Photo by Liz Granger, Metropolitan Planning Council
From left to right: Panelists Robert Jeffreys, Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Grace Hou, Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, and Nasir Blackwell, Staff Organizer at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
- By Michael Wieczorek, 2019 King W. Harris Summer Intern, edited by Liz Granger
- August 14, 2019
“We have a major problem,” said King Harris, Chairman of the Board of the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), in kicking off MPC’s report release event on July 31, 2019. “We have 28,000 people who serve their sentences [in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC)] and are released each year, but we provide limited resources to transition.” He continued, “Very few find adequate housing after they are released, and 40 percent return to prison within three years.” Harris also highlighted several other facts as he provided an overview of MPC’s new report “Re-Entry Housing Issues in Illinois.” The report makes the case that successful re-entry programing requires a focus on not only employment and healthcare, but also housing.
Stable housing is key for securing stable employment; however, returning citizens (those who are leaving the corrections system) face many barriers to finding housing such as, limited access to public housing, discrimination from landlords, and insufficient funds for a security deposit. Unfortunately, the state does not currently provide any resources for re-entry housing, and virtually no permanent supportive housing (PSH) units are dedicated to returning citizens. Furthermore, each recidivism event costs over $150,000, and the cost of imprisoning someone for a year in the IDOC is $38,000. Meanwhile, if the state of Illinois adequately met the need for PSH it could save $100 million annually.
The report recommends various practical solutions. For example, the state can expand programs that work, such as Adult Transition Centers, which currently have a capacity of only about 900 beds. Additionally, the state can earmark more PSH for those leaving corrections. The government can also reduce the use of prison sentences through alternatives such as electronic monitoring. This may be a particularly effective option for the 5,400 prisoners serving short-term sentences of six months or less. Despite the short sentences, these prisoners can face housing challenges that are just as difficult as those serving longer term sentences.
Lt. Governor Stratton announces a new initiative
“When someone is housing insecure it makes it that much more difficult for them to achieve everything else that we hope for them.” - Lt. Governor Stratton
Next, Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton spoke about her experience as a lawyer and mediator, as well as her commitment to restorative justice and criminal justice reform. “We can no longer look at justice reform in a silo,” she said, “it must also include education, healthcare, and housing.” Stratton is heading the Governor’s Justice, Equity, and Opportunity (JEO) initiative, which is aimed at addressing the link between education, poverty, and criminal sentencing. She said that in leading this initiative she seeks to help, “Illinois create a justice system that better reflects our values.” Stratton also announced, to applause from the audience, that the JEO will be launching the Re-Entry Demonstration Program to help individuals exiting the prison system. It will focus on the elderly and disabled, and it will include rental assistance and a strong program evaluation. Stratton closed by emphasizing the importance of housing in effective re-entry programing. “When someone is housing insecure it makes it that much more difficult for them to achieve everything else that we hope for them,” Stratton said.
Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton addresses the room.
Changing the cultural mindset on re-entry
Following Stratton’s remarks Alden Loury, Senior Editor at WBEZ, moderated a panel discussion with distinguished leaders from the government and nonprofit sectors. Loury began by asking the panel about the barriers that may hinder implementation of the report’s recommendations. Grace Hou, Secretary of the Department of Human Services, spoke about the need to reframe the conversation. “There is a narrative that says anytime we perform any kind of public service or program, we are doing them a favor. We need to show the public that it is not a favor. This is not a handout,” she said. She went on to say that these programs are designed to help repair the harm of policies that may have placed individuals in bad situations.
Robert Jeffreys, Director of IDOC, discussed actions his department is taking to address re-entry challenges. He said, “we need a continuum of care. We need to have a better risk and needs assessment of folks when they come through the door, including a case plan.” Jeffreys said implementing that process and emphasizing re-entry is a key focus for his department.
Nasir Blackwell, Staff Organizer at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said, “60 percent [of those leaving prison in Illinois] return to the same five zip codes in Chicago.” He emphasized the impact that has on communities. He also shared from his personal experience with the issue arguing that both the policies and the culture need to change. Blackwell said, “I still cannot find a place to live because I am a felon… Ban the box is great, but just because the employer cannot ask does not mean that they cannot still do a background check. We have to have a commitment to changing the culture.”
“I am a returning citizen,” one woman said during a Q & A with the audience. She said, “I have a violent offence, and I was incarcerated for 20 years. I have only been out for six months,” and “I am employed.” she said to applause. Despite this woman’s success finding employment—a difficult task for the recently justice-involved—she said she’s still struggling to locate something fundamental: a roof over her head. The audience’s reaction was palpable: after applause at this returning citizen’s success a poignant silence rang through the air as people considered the difficult challenge yet ahead for her. Then, a man on the left side of the audience raised his hand. He was an official at IDOC, someone who had power, maybe, to help the woman. In a room full of people working on the issue of re-entry housing from a number of disciplines and angles, he made the kind of important connection MPC and the Illinois Justice Project are looking to inspire with this report: I will help you in any way I can, the IDOC representative said. And the two made plans to talk after the event and continue working toward a solution.
Michael Wieczorek is the 2019 King W. Harris Summer Intern at the Metropolitan Planning Council, and he will be graduating with a Master of Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Spring 2020.