Out of House and Home

The Ethics and Action Series, pt. 2

Here’s what I don’t understand. The criminal legal system tells citizens caught in its claws and headed to jails or prisons to rehabilitate, change their lives, and develop their skills while incarcerated. The state gives them no real resources to do so, then asks those same citizens to rejoin society facing all kinds of collateral consequences from their incarceration.

Anybody else think that’s counterintuitive?

What a counterintuitive action to ask a person with no legs, prosthetic or otherwise, to stand up when society is determined to repeatedly hobble them! This type of treatment can make even the strongest among us feel weakened, demeaned and less than human.

How do you think returning citizens feel? Many of them complete their sentences, then return to halfway houses, homeless shelters, or a room to board in from a family member, but no real home to return to. Being asked to find work, keep a steady job, and find suitable housing- while facing rejection from human resources departments on the basis of a felony conviction- and being told by the third apartment complex front office that they “can’t” rent an apartment to you because of your past conviction is a lot like having no legs to stand on while society demands that you walk.

Lack of fair access to housing has a crippling effect on returning citizens. Having a job but no place to permanently live in turn affects the job itself. Yet, this is the situation returning citizens are faced with constantly in the state of Florida and elsewhere. Formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. In addition to general challenges including lack of availability and affordability in housing, people with past criminal records experience a set of unique barriers unlike other citizens. And yet, housing is critical to successful reentry. Excluding returning citizens from safe and stable housing reduces access to healthcare services, makes it harder to secure a job, and often prevents participation in educational programs. In other words, out of a house? Then you can’t possibly make a home for yourself and your family.

Returning citizens are facing undue and unnecessary barriers to housing in Florida and other states like lack of eligibility for subsidized and public housing, stringent criminal background checks on applications for rental housing, lack of consideration for the individualized factors (relevance, age of the offense, etc.) that returning citizens have in their lives. Crime-free housing programs are unfairly targeting returning citizen residents who have been able to secure housing, often evicting them unjustly at the whisper of an offense or possible involvement in criminal activity. Again causing a returning citizen to lose housing and face the inability to make a home.

You see, it’s really quite simple to see the problem. The Prison Policy Initiative has compassionately noted, “It’s hard to imagine building a successful life without a place to call home, but this basic necessity is often out of reach for formerly incarcerated people. Barriers to employment, combined with explicit discrimination, have created a little-discussed housing crisis. But the problem is not beyond solving.”

Real world solutions like Negligent Leasing Liability Protection could potentially be a win/win for both returning citizens and the renters who would love to rent to them but are riddled with undue fears of liability suits from other tenants and their insurance premiums skyrocketing. But, this has been thought of and an answer to this perceived problem provided.

Take Texas, for example. In 2017, Texas lawmakers passed a bill on the issue of providing leasing liability protections to renters that I personally believe could be a catalyst for legislation here in Florida where I live. Most landlords realize that when they rent to a tenant with a criminal history, the landlord may be held liable for criminal acts committed by that tenant. Texas Property Code Section 92.025 provides that a tenant cannot sue a landlord solely for leasing to a tenant convicted of, arrested for or placed on deferred adjudication for an offense. A similar approach conducive for the state of Florida and other states could be a viable option this upcoming legislative session.

That’s just one example of how barriers to housing returning citizens face can indeed come down. Other common sense solutions like, enacting fair-chance housing policies similar to those passed in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C. could remove bricks in the wall built up against returning citizens. Working with housing authorities to change screening criteria like city officials did in Tallahassee and reforming programs to better support families, victims, and public safety concerns. These are also real world solutions that can proactively began to solve the housing crisis created by unfair, bias policies that have negatively affected the very people we’ve asked to do better with their lives, and while doing it, society has thrown even more roadblocks in the way of their successful reintegration into the communities they come from and are a part of.

The late great singer Luther Vandross addressed this problem succinctly when he said, “A room is still a room, oh, even when there’s nothing there but gloom. But a room is not a house and a house is not a home, when the two of us are far apart, and one of us has a broken heart.”

We unfairly and unnecessarily break the hearts of these citizens when we tell them to rebuild lives once shaken or shattered by a felony conviction and then do seemingly everything we can to keep them from rebuilding. Remaining far a part on this all important issue.

“I’m not meant to live alone, turn this house into a home

When I climb the stairs and turn the key

Oh, please be there…..”

You know the rest.

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The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is committed to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions

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Chasman Barnes

Chasman Barnes

Chasman is a Policy Professional, Advocate for Returning Citizens in Criminal and Social Justice Reform, TEDx Speaker, and sought after Communicator.

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