Californians with criminal records face housing barriers

Cynthia Blake lives cramped in a tiny studio apartment in Long Beach, in a four-unit space that was formerly a church. There is no bathroom in her house; It’s outside in a different part of the building.

Blake, 53, recalls the $1,050 condo being advertised for a long time due to little interest in the odd facility. Still, she felt she had to lie to be considered a potential renter: she didn’t check the box asking if she’d ever been convicted of a crime.

If she had, her application for the apartment would likely have been denied and her time on the streets would have increased — a part of her life she said her two-year sentence on drug charges felt like “a relief.”

Housing options for Blake are limited. Tenants are often at the mercy of private landlords who conduct criminal background checks. Regulations prohibit people from accessing government-subsidized housing if they have been convicted of certain crimes, including drug and sex offenses.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom has pushed ahead with criminal justice reform — pledging to close prisons, signing legislation to reduce some sentences and calling for the abolition of death row — housing is being created Those with criminal records often remain unreachable, compounding the state’s homelessness crisis.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans this year to remove barriers to the housing market for criminals, and similar efforts are underway in California.

A 2020 law banned landlords from discriminating against tenants who use a housing voucher to pay their rent, often one of the only options available to people who have left incarceration.

But advocates across the state say not nearly enough is being done to stem the flow of formerly incarcerated Californians onto the streets.

Formerly incarcerated people in the US are in short supply 10 times more likely to experience homelessness Black men and women are more at risk than the general public, according to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative. According to a California Health Policy Strategies analysis released in 2018 using data from Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, 70 percent of vulnerable homeless people in California reported a history of incarceration.

A 2020 Los Angeles Times investigation found that local crime-free housing policies in California put Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately at risk of evictions and displacement.

Much has changed since Blake was released from prison more than a decade ago. She no longer sleeps in her car, bathes her children in gas station sinks, or sells drugs to earn enough money to afford a night in the most seedy motels.

She is methamphetamine-free, has a master’s degree in sociology from Cal State Dominguez Hills, and plans to be a college professor.

Several years after moving into her apartment, Blake can finally afford a bigger, better home. Despite this, she feels frozen, afraid to try to move to a new place. What if her past crimes surface? What if this is as good as it gets?

“In our society, we just keep punishing. I’ve done my time so why am I still being punished?” Blake said. “You can’t get a job because of the crimes, you can’t get an apartment because of the crimes, and it goes around and around.

“You end up on the street and everyone tells you that you have to do something. But there’s no way in hell to get out of this.”

In June, Newsom and lawmakers poured hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding workforce development, transitional housing and reentry programs to “prepare incarcerated individuals to successfully return to their communities upon release from prison,” according to the state budget proposal.

But other attempts to create more permanent and affordable housing options for those leaving incarceration have so far failed.

Legislation introduced last year to divert money saved from closed prisons into new housing and training opportunities for recently incarcerated people failed in a key tax committee. The state has yet to save money from prison closures to fund the program.

That year, Member of Parliament Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) introduced Assembly Bill 1816 to provide $200 million to start a broader program than what the state is currently offering and long-term housing opportunities for formerly to empower incarcerated people who are at risk of homelessness or affected by homelessness. The program would also help connect renters to other services such as job training, mental health care and addiction treatment.

The state budget completed last month included no money for AB 1816, even though California has a record surplus of over $100 billion. Bryan said he’s still struggling to get funding.

“We all agree that this demographic is vulnerable to falling into the streets. And it’s a population that has paid its debt to society,” Bryan said. “So the only alternative is to have everyone imprisoned forever. And we’ve tried that before.”

Emily Harris, a policy director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, called barriers to housing ex-prisoners “another form of redlining.”

Disproportionate incarceration of people of color has a lasting snowball effect, Harris said, leading to higher odds of unemployment and homelessness.

Closing prisons and relaxing penalties for minor offenders is not enough, she said, when released prisoners have nowhere to go when they leave the country.

“As we move away from a ‘lock up’ mentality in California, we need to provide more infrastructure to support them when they come out,” Harris said. “In the In terms of state budget priorities, we can invest in prisons, which is incredibly expensive, or we can invest in other forms of community security, such as B. Stable housing that is much cheaper and has a much better long-term impact on people.”

Daniel Yukelson, Managing Director of Apartment Assn. from the greater Los Angeles area, said landlords take a risk when they rent to tenants with a criminal history, and not everyone faces liability.

“People can’t afford to take a chance anymore,” Yukelson said.

Even those who can get housing benefits despite their criminal records face discrimination, long waits, and other hurdles in California’s competitive and expensive rental market.

Daisy Pelayo was 12 when she started using drugs, which led to increasing jail sentences into adulthood. She found sanctuary at Cameo House, a long-term transitional housing and alternative sentencing program in San Francisco for homeless and formerly incarcerated women.

While at Cameo House, a housing specialist helped Pelayo navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of applying for Section 8, a government-funded program that helps eligible low-income, disabled, and elderly renters pay rent to private landlords. Certain crimes automatically disqualify applicants, such as any crime requiring lifetime registration as a sex offender.

Pelayo, 36, qualified for financial assistance. Then came the difficult part.

“The biggest hurdle I found was that people with section 8 are stigmatized,” Pelayo said. “It was like I said ‘Section 8’ right away, they look at you differently.”

Rebecca Jackson, director of Cameo House, said that finding housing is one of the biggest challenges for the women at Cameo House. Women can stay in the program for up to two years, but it often takes months for financial assistance to be approved, Jackson said. Many women are forced out of their communities to find shelter.

“I’m talking about women who are native to San Francisco, their whole family lives in the Bay Area, and they’re crying in the clerk’s office because the only Section 8 they can get is in Sacramento,” Jackson said. “You don’t know anyone there. They don’t have a support system there. They don’t even know how to get there. But it is what is available.”

The accommodations they can find are usually below average, Jackson said, such as converted hotels or buildings in unsafe areas where they don’t want to take their children.

“We’re poor, we’re black and we have a criminal history,” she said. “Stacked against stacked against stacked.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides an extensive network of rehabilitation services and end-of-incarceration housing, including community-based programs focused on drug use treatment, education, job training and family reunification. But programs are usually time-limited, meaning participants must have a plan for when time is up.

Donald Jones, 38, lived without shelter after being released from prison in 2010 on drug-related charges. He is now at the end of his residency in Los Angeles, where he has lived since October.

Jones recently got his Class A driver’s license and works as a truck driver, saving money while he waits for his Section 8 voucher so he can find accommodation.

Jones said the criminal justice system was “designed to fail,” and he can see how easy it is to fall back into old patterns. He said not enough people realize that incarceration affects your credit score and ability to get a good job and affordable housing.

“I have paid my debts to society,” he said. “Now when you get home you’ve got everything stacked against you.”

Having a place to sleep in the transition program was “a breath of fresh air,” Jones said, but he’s eager to find a stable home of his own. It’ll make him feel like he’s “achieved something,” he said.

“Like I’m the king of the castle,” he said. “It’s like I’m home now.” Californians with criminal records face housing barriers

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