Harrisburg, PA (STL.News) First Lady Frances Wolf hosted Women in Reentry: Housing, the sixth in a series of virtual conversations with reentry advocates. The panel discussed how safe, affordable housing impacts female returning citizens, how government and organizations are responding to their housing needs, and how stigma around having a criminal record complicates access to housing.
Representative Dwight Evans, PA’s 3rd Congressional District
Meg Snead, Acting Secretary of the PA Department of Human Services (DHS)
Robin Wiessmann, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA)
Shawn Johnson, Director of Reentry and Social Services for Friends Rehabilitation Program
Deborah Gale, Vice President of Resident Services for HDC MidAtlantic
“Housing plays a role in every step of a woman’s reentry process from pre-release to securing employment to regaining custody of her children,” said First Lady Wolf. “If a woman does not have access to a home upon her return, the probability of reestablishing and maintaining what she lost during her time away is significantly lower. It is imperative that we include female returning citizens in housing initiatives, so we don’t lose them to the vicious cycle of recidivism.”
According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. Rates of homelessness are especially high among individuals who have been incarcerated more than once, have recently been released from prison, people of color, and women.
“Access to housing is a critical piece of helping someone begin to acclimate to life back in their community. As we seek to help re-entering people ease their transition back to the community, we must be sure that they have the support they need to meet essential needs so they can support themselves and loved ones,” said Acting Secretary Snead. “We have a responsibility to invest in the wellbeing of people we serve. DHS will continue to do all we can to partner with our sister agencies and communities to be sure we are connecting re-entering people to supports available to assist them through this important time.”
For years DHS has partnered with other commonwealth agencies like PHFA and the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to address the various housing needs of Pennsylvanians. Their housing strategy includes removing barriers unique to each person, connecting people with housing opportunities, and expanding affordable housing in Pennsylvania.
Most recently, Governor Tom Wolf announced $8.2 million in funding for the HOME Investment Partnership, which expands and preserves the supply of decent and affordable housing for low- and very low-income Pennsylvanians.
There has also been an emphasis on housing access for returning citizens from the federal government.
“This is important because women in re-entry disproportionately lack stable housing or experience homelessness,” said Congressman Evans. “I’m pleased that both the Biden-Harris administration and Pennsylvania First Lady Wolf are leading efforts to help returning citizens find stable housing. For example, people exiting prisons and jails who are at risk of homelessness are eligible for the 70,000 emergency housing vouchers under the American Rescue Plan I voted for. This matters for the community as a whole because findings from the Returning Home Ohio Pilot Project showed that participants receiving supportive housing services were 40 percent less likely to be re-arrested.”
The housing vouchers Evans mentioned are part of an initiative announced by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia L. Fudge. In a 2021 letter to public housing authorities (PHAs), continuums of care, multifamily housing owners and HUD grantees, Secretary Fudge also outlined other actions HUD is taking to reduce housing barriers for people with criminal records including reviewing existing HUD policies and developing more tools and guidance to ensure applicant screening isn’t unnecessarily excluding people with criminal records.
Organizations like HDC MidAtlantic are prime examples of how entities can contribute to the solution by updating their policies to be more inclusive of reentrants.
“HDC MidAtlantic is committed to providing safe, affordable housing for anyone who needs it, including women and their children as they re-enter society following incarceration,” said Gable. “Recently we looked at our resident selection criteria, which evaluates a potential resident’s credit history, landlord history, and criminal background, to ensure that we’re not putting up additional barriers to the people that need housing the most. We try to look at each situation individually and give people the opportunity to tell their story, because we know that stable housing is critical as a person reenters their community. We’ve also recently partnered with local Lancaster nonprofit, Milagro House, to help serve this vulnerable population. At HDC, we believe everyone deserves a place to thrive.”
Since HDC’s policy updates, they were able to successfully house 19 individuals with criminal records. Nine of them were women.
The causes of housing insecurity post-release include affordable housing shortages and discrimination from housing authorities and property owners. The panel concluded the conversation addressing the stigmas associated with returning citizens seeking housing and what can be done to reduce it. The final Women in Reentry roundtable is scheduled for Wednesday, February 2.
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