Nonprofit explores what it will take to provide immediate housing for returning citizens
Nonprofit developer Jubilee Housing plans to create immediate temporary housing for people returning from incarceration and long-term affordable housing for returning citizens who have found a source of income.
“For people coming out of incarceration, the barriers are enormous,” said Martin Mellet, Jubilee’s vice president of internal affairs. “We know one of the main problems for returning citizens is finding housing.”
The loss of income that stems from incarceration is a leading cause of homelessness when someone leaves prison. Even if an individual had stable housing before being incarcerated, which many did not, they often are likely going to lose this housing before they return. About 57% of individuals who experience homelessness in D.C. have been incarcerated and 55% reported that incarceration caused their homeless, according to a D.C. Fiscal Policy report released earlier this year.
Both housing developments will be in Adams Morgan in an area that includes the King Emmanuel Baptist Church at 1721 Kalorama Road NW, which the nonprofit purchased in January.
“While Jubilee plans to renovate the church, the 11,000-square-foot space is currently in good condition and can be used as is, so Jubilee can start to have a presence there right away,” according to a post on the organization’s website. “This also creates an opportunity for other nonprofits that do similar work to meet at the church.”
According to the Washington Business Journal, Jubilee also purchased a building down the road at 1724 Kalorama Road NW and several other spaces on nearby Ontario Road NW in 2019. The organization owns the majority of the block.
Jubilee has operated a transitional housing program for the past eight years. Ten men at a time in one residence and 10 women at a time in another are housed and helped on their road to recovery from incarceration. Participants, who usually are not coming directly from prison, agree to stay drug- and alcohol-free, and commit to looking for employment. The program generally lasts about a year. This is different from the temporary housing Jubilee now plans to build.
“This immediate housing would be for people just coming out and looking for a place to stay. We would have some rules and expectations that we are developing at this point, but this would have a lot lower barrier than our transitional housing,” Mellet said. “We need to create a system where we can give folks who are just coming out a place that is stable and that’s giving some support. Then once they’re strong enough, we already have a transitional housing program.”
Nearly 50,000 people nationally enter homeless shelters directly from incarceration, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In fiscal year 2018, more than 11% of people in the community supervision program in D.C. were considered to have unstable housing, three-quarters of whom resided in shelters, according to a Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) report.
The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute report recommends instituting a housing evaluation for returning citizens three months before they are released, to connect them with family, friends, or temporary housing assistance and have a definitive plan for housing for each person. It also recommends coordinating and expanding existing city services to provide housing and supportive services for returning citizens, not unlike Jubilee’s program, “in recognition that the first years following incarceration are especially important and that the risk of recidivism is highest in this period.”
In addition to this, Jubilee plans to build 50 – 60 units of affordable housing next to the King Emmanuel Baptist Church, half of which will be designated for returning citizens. Those who finish Jubilee’s transitional housing program and gain employment would be able to live there. This type of subsidized housing is still necessary after returning citizens gain employment, according to Mellet.
“Even if you’re on a fixed income or you’re earning minimum wage, which is now 15 bucks per hour, you are not going to find housing in the District,” Mellet said. “It just doesn’t exist unless it’s subsidized.”
There are reportedly 51,002 extremely low-income renter households in the District, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. An NLIHC report released in March found there were only 41 housing units that are both available and affordable for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. The minimum wage is not sufficient to cover rent in D.C. To afford rent in a one-bedroom apartment in 2020, a person making minimum wage in the District would have to work 88 hours per week, according to the organization’s annual “Out of Reach” report.
“Many returning citizens face the same challenges that lead to homelessness among the general population,” according to the DCFPI report.
Additional barriers for returning citizens
The severe lack of affordable housing in D.C. leaves few options for those who make minimum wage, are unemployed, elderly, chronically ill or have any sort of restricted income, said Paula Thompson, the founding co-chair of the D.C. Reentry Action Network, a coalition of local nonprofits providing direct service to returning citizens, and the executive director of Voices for a Second Chance, which works to connect justice-involved individuals with family, community, and resources. This lack of affordable options often forces individuals to live in housing that is unsafe or drives them to homelessness.
“This occurs before factoring in the stigmatization of a criminal record and gentrification. Many individuals who return from incarceration after years and decades do not recognize their former neighborhoods and can’t afford to live in them and become discouraged,” Thompson said.
Residents rely on networks of friends and family members for help affording housing in D.C. This is often difficult for returning citizens who may have severed or damaged relationships due to their incarceration, according to Caroline Cragin, founding director of Community Mediation, which provides mediation between returning citizens and their families. Cragin is also a board member of the D.C. Reentry Action Network.
“The folks that are incarcerated in D.C. are disproportionately Black and brown folks and from wards 7 and 8 and from communities themselves that are more disenfranchised,” Cragin said.“Even if my relationship with a support person is really strong, that person doesn’t want to risk their own voucher … or their own housing if they rely on any kind of subsidies.” Many housing vouchers do not allow for long-term guests or additional tenants. They and other programs may also include stipulations for the condition of the unit that the tenant may worry about not maintaining if they invite someone else to live there.
In the District, a “vulnerability index” is used as a form of triage to prioritize who will be given access to various housing programs when they become available, based on how that person’s needs match up with the specific housing programs.
“Returning citizens often don’t score well in the vulnerability index because their time in a halfway house or jail is not considered homeless,” Mellet said. “It’s not that our system doesn’t want to house them. It’s that we don’t have enough resources to do it.”
The current pandemic has only exacerbated the need for housing for this population, Thompson said.
“There was minimal housing inventory dedicated to returning citizens before COVID-19,” Thompson said. She worried that the projected increase in homelessness, coupled with strategies to reduce jail populations by releasing more inmates during the pandemic, have made the situation that much more dire. In June, the D.C. Department of Corrections was ordered to come up with a detailed plan for possible further reduction of DOC inmates after denying a request to release inmates in April.
Purchasing the church exhausted Jubilee’s “Justice Housing Partners Fund,” which it launched in 2018 to support deeply affordable housing in well-served neighborhoods where it is typically not found, such as Adams Morgan. The fund raised $5.3 million and the organization hopes to replicate the endeavor.