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A Guide To Finding Housing After Incarceration

An elderly man shaking hands with one of his family members before sitting down for a barbecue meal together.
Hinterhaus Productions/ Getty Images

As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, it brought hope to some people. For those living in prison, the global crisis presented a possibility: Individuals with COVID-19 risk factors who don’t pose a threat to the public and had reentry plans in place were released into home confinement. That’s on top of the more than 650,000 people who return home from incarceration each year.

What does life after prison look like for these returning citizens? Specifically, will they have the safe, affordable housing they need to set them up for stable, productive reentry?

These questions are particularly pressing because around two-thirds of returning citizens are arrested within just three years of reentry. That’s because reentry can be a rocky road. Rebecca Sauter, Project Reentry Program director and co-founder at Piedmont Triad Regional Council, explains, “When you’re in prison, you don’t make choices. You’re told when to get up, when to shower, when to eat. When you get out, you have to make decisions. But many people don’t trust themselves to make those decisions.” With a lack of resources and self-confidence, it can be hard to successfully reintegrate.

Whether you were recently released from prison or you have an incarcerated loved one and you’re wondering what to expect when an inmate comes home, we’ve built this guide to help. It’s loaded with information about finding housing for returning citizens. We’ve linked to plenty of resources to help jumpstart the best life after prison.

Finding housing as a returning citizen

Finding a home after being released from prison is paramount, and maintaining that housing is equally important. As Curtis L. Sapp, case manager at Community Success Initiative, explains, “You want to wake up in a safe environment. That means housing. This is basically a repeated penalty — once those people have done their time, it should be over. But oftentimes, that’s not the case. Oftentimes, they’re penalized with lack of resources and they can’t find housing.”

The statistics support Sapp’s assertion that housing has historically been a challenge.

They show that life after prison often involves homelessness. In fact, each year, around 50,000 people go directly to a shelter after being released from prison. And people who have spent time in prison are nearly 10 times as likely to face homelessness.

All too often, this is because people return to society without a support system in place. That might mean having no family nearby or lacking information about the resources that could help them. We can’t place individuals near family, but we can make sure you have access to tools that can help with finding housing as a returning citizen. Let’s dive deeper.

What housing options are available?

Let’s quickly go over your housing options:

  • Affordable housing: This housing is usually privately owned, but your rent gets significantly subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). To be eligible, you generally need to be low-income, a senior, or living with a disability. If you may qualify for affordable housing, you can call (800) 569-4287 or head to the HUD housing counselor office near you.
  • Public housing: Public housing is usually owned by your state or local government. You pay about 30% of your adjusted monthly income toward rent in this type of housing. Eligibility for it depends on parameters set by the government authority that owns the housing, so it’s worth finding your local Public Housing Agency (PHA) and getting more information about this option.
  • Private housing: This is the most common type of housing. When you buy a house, you privately own it. Or, if you rent under a traditional lease, you rent from a private housing owner. Anyone is eligible for private housing, but it may cost more than the other options outlined here.
  • Supportive housing: Supportive housing is usually owned by an organization committed to helping individuals stay permanently housed. It’s called supportive housing because in addition to a place to live, this type of housing includes services to help you. That could mean helping you build a relationship with your landlord, understand your rights as a renter, or even get access to the healthcare you need. Access to and eligibility for supportive housing depends on your area. To look for local organizations overseeing supportive housing, you can simply google “supportive housing [your city, state]”.
  • Transitional housing: As the name suggests, these residences are supposed to be temporary, helping you have stable housing as you look for a permanent shelter. You might hear transitional housing called a halfway house or a residential reentry center. With this type of housing, you usually get help finding your permanent housing, finding employment, and getting healthcare. The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains a directory of residential reentry centers (scroll down to “Nationwide RRC Contracts”) to help you find this option near you. Sauter did have a few caveats about transitional housing. She says, “There’s no oversight over transitional housing. Anyone can do it. And transitional housing is very, very hard to find.” That said, it’s still worth exploring your local options.

Resources to help returning citizens

Why do so many people struggle to stay housed as they adjust to life after prison? For starters, it’s a vicious cycle. As Sauter says, “So many of these things are interrelated. You can’t say, ‘Oh, the biggest problem is housing.’ Someone needs a job to pay for housing. But you need an address to put on an application to get a job.”

Plus, in many cases, the challenge to find stable housing stems from the fact that people aren’t aware of the resources and programs that are available to them. In this middle of this pandemic, with many local resource-providing offices closed, knowledge about and access to those resources are even more limited. And that can make reentering even more difficult.

It’s common for people to want to keep a distance from local, state, and federal programs after incarceration. We understand that it can feel like leaning on a system that very recently suppressed you. But in many cases, these tools are specifically designed to help returning citizens just like you. Tapping into them doesn’t make you beholden to a system. It just means you’re activating all of the resources you can to set yourself up for success.

Ready to get started? Here are resources worth a look.

Financial resources

When an individual reenters society, it’s common for them to feel financial strain. Without employment in place — and with the challenge of a limited résumé due to the time in prison — earning a living presents a serious hurdle. But you don’t have to face life after prison with empty pockets. Here are a few financial resources to explore:

  • Housing Choice Vouchers: Previously known as Section 8, these vouchers are issued through HUD to help pay for private rental housing. Your local PHA determines your eligibility based on things like your adjusted gross income (you’ll generally need to be considered low-income) and your family’s size. Reach out to your local PHA to find out if you qualify for this voucher to help you cover the cost of rent.
  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit: You can’t use this credit, but a potential employer can. Essentially, this credit reduces a company’s tax dues when they hire people from certain groups, including previously incarcerated individuals. As you’re trying to find a job, asking if employers know about this tax credit can help you incentive them to hire you, which in turn helps you earn the paycheck you need.
  • Supplemental Security income benefits: If you’re over 65 or have a disability, you may be eligible to receive supplemental income from the Social Security Administration, assuming you worked and paid into Social Security for a sufficient number of years. To learn more about your eligibility, review this Benefits After Incarceration webpage.
  • Food stamps: If you’re able to find gainful employment but a significant portion of your paycheck is garnished to pay for probation fees or court fines, you may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. This allows you to buy essential groceries without dipping into your cash reserves.
  • Your Money, Your Goals toolkit: Being stably housed and able to support yourself isn’t just about finding a place to live and a job. It’s also about properly managing the money you do have. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) offers an extensive, helpful toolkit to help. You can go through the entire toolkit or find the part that’s most relevant to you, whether that’s paying bills or managing debt.

Wellness resources for reentry

Financial stability is an important aspect of reentry, but people adjusting to life after prison often face challenges to their mental stability or physical wellness, too. Fortunately, a number of different organizations and agencies offer resources to help you lead your healthiest life after prison possible.

  • Behavioral health treatment: Mental illnesses and substance abuse can keep individuals from successful reentry. If you know or suspect you live with either of these challenges, don’t wait to seek out treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a treatment locator. Just type in your ZIP code to pull up mental health, physical health, and substance abuse treatment locations around you.
  • Health Care for Re-entry Veterans (HCRV): If you’re a veteran, this program can help you get referrals for health and social services and even short-term case management should you need extra support. Scroll down on that page to find your state HRCV specialist contact. Email them an explanation of the healthcare you need to start the process.
  • RxAssist: Having trouble paying for the medication you need? Many pharmaceutical companies offer assistance programs. Type your medication’s name into RxAssist, click the drug name, and click “Program Website” to get directed to the pharmaceutical company’s program so you can get help paying for your medication.

Other reentry programs and resources to check out

But wait, there’s more. In our research, we found a handful of other resources that may prove useful to you.

  • Your parole or probation officer: Sauter says your parole or probation officer can actually be a boon for you. “So many people fight them because they’re trying to get away from that system, but that individual can be your link to resources,” she explains. “Their job is to help reconnect you with society — so work with them. Make them do their job.”
  • CareerOneStop: The U.S. Department of Labor sponsors CareerOneStop, a useful resource for anyone looking for employment. Type your ZIP code in to find your closest office (usually an America’s Job Center office). There, you’ll have access to job seeker services like skills trainings, résumé review, job listings, and more.
  • Reentry Services Directory: The National Reentry Resource Center has an extensive nationwide directory of reentry resources. Click your state to pull up a list of state and local agencies, nonprofits, and other groups that can help you reenter successfully.
  • Office of Justice Programs Reentry Resource Center: The federal government has put together a robust resource page that links to resources you can use for housing, employment training, mental healthcare, and more.

Adjusting To Life After Prison

Because we’re living in the middle of a pandemic that’s turned our lives on their heads, you probably feel like everything has changed even if you were only imprisoned a short time. If you’ve been incarcerated for years, the transition is even starker.

Adjusting to life after prison can be difficult, but it’s also a chance for an entirely new beginning. Few people get such a clean break from their life before and their life now. It’s an opportunity to do everything differently if you want to.

And we’ve lined up some tools that can help you start off on the right foot.

Ways to prepare for reentry

If you’re about to be released or just reentered society, add these to-dos to your list:

  • Begin a job search: Finding and maintaining stable housing often comes down to earning an income. First things first, update your résumé using these tips. Using a free résumé template can make things easier, too. Then, make a list of jobs and companies that interest you. Spend some time searching for open positions in your area that align with those interests. If you can, find someone who’s willing to practice interviewing with you. Then, apply for jobs. As you do, it’s important to be honest about your criminal record. For help talking about it, review this guide from CareerOneStop. And if you want to apply with a company that’s committed to hiring people with a criminal record, check out this list.
  • Look for ways to prove you’re a good tenant. Sauter explains that when her organization asked landlords about renting to previously incarcerated individuals, “a lot of landlords were saying it’s not necessarily the money that’s their main consideration. It’s that you take care of the property and recognize that you’re a neighbor and need to contribute to the community. We asked landlords, ‘Would it be helpful if the individual was part of a program that helped to develop them and included classes on how to be a good renter?’ And they said yes.” If you can showcase a history of good rental maintenance or get referrals from past landlords, it will go a long way toward helping you secure housing.
  • Get involved in the community: While some people make friends from chance meetings on the street and land jobs from online listings, it’s a lot easier to do these things within the network of people you know. Find local organizations you care about — whether it’s a religious group, a food bank, a volunteer opportunity, a sports league, or something else — and start participating. Meeting new people helps you forge relationships. You’ll make friends and connections that can help stabilize your reentry.
  • Join a support group: You shouldn’t have to go through reentry alone, and you certainly don’t have to. Do some internet searching to find a support group in your area. Many local organizations host these groups on a weekly basis. Attending your first group meeting might feel awkward, but you’ll get people around you who understand what you’re going through and can help you navigate the road ahead.
  • Secure housing: Finding housing is often one of the most foundational pieces in successful reentry. Review the housing options we listed earlier in this guide to get an idea of which one might be right for you, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your local PHA to explore your options. Also, if you’ll be categorized as low-income, look into grants and charities to help with the expense of moving in and getting settled.
  • Keep asking: If you know a resource or program could help you, keep pursuing it. “As far as state and federal resources, you have to do your research,” Sapp says. “You can’t just let a door being closed in your face deter you. You need to keep working at it.”
  • Evaluate your attitude: Sauter says, “A lot of [incarcerated individuals] come out ill-prepared. They may have an entitled or unrealistic attitude that gets in their way. You can’t think, ‘I’ve done my time and I’m owed this.’ And you can’t be defeated and think, ‘I’m a felon. No one will give me anything.’ It’s really about trying to get people out of their own head.”

Helping a loved one adjust after incarceration

If someone you care about is about to be released, you’re probably wondering what to expect when an inmate comes home. More importantly, you’re probably wondering what you can do to help them.

Your desire to help will make a difference. “Family support is crucial. You can tell by the results of those who have a committed and supportive family,” Sapp says.

Here are some tips to help your returning citizen:

  • Research resources: In this guide, we’ve linked to a number of tools to find local, state, and federal resources that can help your loved one. Having a list of resources they can use can help them feel empowered to start life after prison well.
  • Understand their probation and parole: Take the time to educate yourself on the regulations your loved one will live under for a while. It can be helpful to develop a relationship with their parole officer. Knowing these rules can ensure you don’t make anything challenging for the person you’re trying to support, like planning a vacation to a location outside state lines.
  • Help them with their job search: You can help your returning citizen feel confident finding employment. Review their résumé and practice interviewing with them. Also, when interviews get scheduled, help them prepare leading up to it and stay involved on the day of the interview to make sure they show up on time.
  • Come up with a plan: Sapp says, “If someone has some structure that they can look forward to on release, it helps.” Working with your loved one, set goals for the period immediately following their return home. Do you want to contribute to your savings account? Do you want to find them full-time employment within a certain number of months? Setting goals like these — and planning steps to reach them — helps you stay on the same page while offering the support your returnee needs.
  • Give them grace: It’s important to be patient with your loved one. “Their behavior might seem unusual to you,” Sauter says. “Don’t touch their belongings, for starters. If they seem like they’re isolating themselves, you have to give them that time. Don’t take it personally.”

Whether you’re the returning citizen or you’re welcoming a loved one home, these resources should help set you up for a productive, stably housed life after prison.

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