President Obama’s move to commute prison sentences highlights affordable housing needs of people with criminal records

November 9, 2016
By Jacob Schmidt, NLIHC Policy Intern
Jacob Schmidt, Policy Intern

President Obama and his administration have led the charge in pushing for criminal justice reform and has commuted a total of 872 inmates since 2014. He granted clemency to another 98 inmates at the end of last month and has now commuted more individuals than the past 11 presidents combined. Through these commutations, President Obama has sought to correct some of the harms created by harsh federal laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

While President Obama should be commended for these efforts, the next question we as a nation need to be thinking about is: what housing and supportive services will be available to people exiting prisons and jails to ensure their smooth transition back to society?

Without addressing the housing needs of the reentry population, more and more of these recently released individuals will fall into homelessness.

Katina Smith had her sentence commuted in 2015 and was lucky enough to have a family who had the means to welcome her back home. Katina, who happens to be the mother of Demaryius Thomas, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, said, “If it wasn’t for God and for my son being in the position he’s in and my sister being able to help me, I could have easily been homeless.”

If our country is serious about reducing its prison populations, we must provide formerly incarcerated individuals with housing to act as a stabilizing platform where they can get back on their feet; otherwise, they’ll likely end up back in prison. Affordable housing has been shown to reduce recidivism rates among the reentry population.

Justice-involved individuals face too many barriers in accessing affordable housing. Many public housing authorities (PHAs) bar individuals with criminal records from living in federally-assisted housing. Housing providers may also use unreasonably long lookback periods into applicants’ criminal history, and often neglect to provide opportunities for applicants to show that they’ve rehabilitated and can be good tenants. The use of discretionary policy making disproportionately impact people of color and people with disabilities.

Fortunately, HUD has taken steps to advise landlords, including PHAs, that tenant screening policies imposing blanket bans on people with criminal records likely violate the Fair Housing Act. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) has also introduced legislation, the Fair Chance at Housing Act (H.R. 5085), that seeks to reform the way federally-assisted housing providers can screen or evict a household based on criminal history.

As we approach a new Congress and Administration, NLIHC and our partners in the Reentry and Housing Coalition, will continue to raise awareness about the housing needs of people with criminal records. Until we ensure people have a stable and affordable place to call home after leaving incarceration, efforts in reforming our criminal justice system will not be fully realized.

Women and Trauma-Informed Care: A Congressional Briefing

Carmela DeCandia presents data on homeless women and trauma, demonstrating that 93% of mothers had a history of trauma leading many to be diagnosed with PTSD. (PHOTO: NLIHC)

Carmela DeCandia presents data on homeless women and trauma, demonstrating that 93% of mothers had a history of trauma leading many to be diagnosed with PTSD. (PHOTO: NLIHC)

By Sylvia Deyo

The National Coalition for the Homeless and the Congressional Homelessness Caucus recently hosted a briefing on Women and Trauma-Informed Care. The panel discussed the trauma of homelessness and the lack of aid and services available to homeless mothers and families in addressing these traumatic experiences.

The presenters stated that studies show that 93% of homeless mothers have experienced trauma in their lives, impeding their ability to provide a stable home, regardless of the housing services they receive. Additionally, over half of all homeless children are under the age of six and are traumatized by their homeless situation during a critical development period. The panel emphasized that in addition to housing assistance, trauma-informed care at an organizational level is essential for the well-being of these families. Trauma-informed care teaches service providers to notice and understand the impact of trauma on their clients as opposed to reacting confrontationally to problem behaviors.

The panelists included Cheryl Sharp Senior Advisor of Trauma-Informed Services at the National Council for Behavioral Health, Barbara Anderson Executive Director of Haven House Services, Jennifer Perlman Coordinator of Trauma Informed Care at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Leah Harris Trauma Informed Care Specialist at the National Association for State Mental Health Program Directors. Carmela DeCandia, the Director of Child and Family Initiatives at the Center for Social Innovation, moderated the discussion.

Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL), host of the briefing, opens discussion speaking about the lack of interest in trauma-informed care by colleagues and the overwhelming funding for military spending over social services. (PHOTO: NLIHC)

Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL), host of the briefing, opens discussion speaking about the lack of interest in trauma-informed care by colleagues and the overwhelming funding for military spending over social services. (PHOTO: NLIHC)

In addition to discussing the merits of trauma-informed care, the panel debunked common misconceptions about homeless people and the causes of their homelessness. Most of the American population generally attributes homelessness to laziness or addiction, but an often ignored factor is previous trauma or abuse. Jennifer Perlman spoke about Toxic Childhood Stress and the resulting dissociation in concealing trauma as a key cause for addiction and behavioral problems. All panelists emphasized the need for services that help people understand how these traumatic histories have affected their present situations. In order to address the trauma, care must focus on overall physical and psychological safety, the availability of choice and treatment in the decisions of the clients, and the avoidance of confrontational approaches to healing.

Cheryl Sharp stated that “stressed brains don’t learn,” when explaining the importance of stability and support in the health of children experiencing homelessness.

Leah Harris spoke further about policy steps that need to be taken in order to begin instituting widespread trauma-informed care in homeless services. She cited King County’s policy of reallocating funds from closing prisons to early intervention programs in schools. This program was successful because it allowed for early intervention in young children to address the negative social determinants of health that come with trauma and homelessness. The panel closed on the call to action of the young generation of advocates and Congressional staff to implement these programs because America “created homelessness through poor domestic policy,” and it is our job to end it.

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Sylvia Deyo, a native to the Washington, DC, area, is NLIHC’s Field Intern. She attends Macalester College in Minnesota where her major is International Studies. She plans to continue her housing policy education in the next three years of college.

An Intern’s Interest in Affordable Housing

photoBy: Lela Schwartz

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, one of the poorest regions in the nation. For many years, I did not realize that the crumbling infrastructure and inadequate school systems were not at par with the national standard, and even definitely not the case compared to the rest of California.

Stockton, Bakersfield, Merced—all are interchangeable punch lines to classic (and classist) jokes that Californians grow up on. Either that, or my whole valley is erased in the typical SoCal-NorCal dichotomy. In many ways, my hometown (Fresno, fifth largest city in the state) is representative of the US in the enormous disparity of income and the standard of living of its residents. We suffer from massive brain drain, little federal funding (as a region that is technically defined as metropolitan, we miss out on funding for rural realities), and a drought that is hurting our main source of revenue: agriculture.

Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—studying housing did not appeal to me until halfway into my time at the University of California at Davis. I’m an International Relations major and making a difference in the world meant running away from home for awhile, away from the dead-end mentality that can be pervasive in Fresno. During my sophomore year, I decided to add a Community Development minor to my degree. A few classes in, I became more and more interested in redlining, public housing history, and modern segregation. Surprisingly, the San Joaquin Valley was used as a case study frequently. I learned more about the social issues of my home than I was ever taught in high school.

I applied to the National Low Income Housing Coalition at the suggestion of my housing professor and thankfully was offered the summer Field intern position. At NLIHC, I have learned about the different viewpoints on how to end homelessness (such as the United for Homes campaign) as well as methods of sustaining affordable housing. I have primarily worked on writing an upcoming issue of Tenant Talk, a quarterly newsletter highlighting recent successes and ways of organizing for tenant advocacy groups. The Field team is a great fit for anyone with a passion for outreach, making interpersonal connections with others working in affordable and fair housing, and ensuring that anyone who wants to advocate for people in low income housing has the information and resources to do so.

Though I do not intend to change my major, the necessity of affordable housing is a topic I can integrate into future research or field work for both domestic and international issues. Interning at NLIHC has helped me better understand the struggle my home is facing and the part my community and I can play in fixing it.

Lela is a senior at the University of California, Davis, studying International Relations with minors in Community Development and Human Rights. Lela has past experience performing community engagement projects in South Africa through study abroad, and upon completing her degree she hopes to work in refugees’ rights, housing, and protections.

Intern Reflection: Why Housing Matters

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By Trevor Smith

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to live and study in New Delhi, India, where I gained invaluable insight on the disparities of the global housing situation. Nestled between the American Embassy School, the American Embassy compound and the British School, was a multi-acre housing slum which must have housed over 500 people. Going to a gated school just feet away from children who would never have the same opportunity as me was disheartening to say the least. That is what sparked my interest in communicating and advocating for affordable housing for all.

I strongly believe that every person who enters this earth is entitled to the basic necessities of life. In terms of pure survival, at our very core, as humans we need food, water, and shelter but the number of people who go without these basic provisions every day is astonishing. My goal is to help end this problem in whatever way I can.

I came to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) from the Habitat for Humanity’s Government Relations and Advocacy office as the Advocacy and Communications intern. There, I was a core member of the first ever global advocacy campaign and my responsibilities ranged from contacting media outlets to share our updates to creating infographics aimed to raise affordable housing awareness. In May, when the semester was over, I felt as if I had merely scratched the surface of the affordable housing world. I was definitely eager to learn more.

IMG_3053Thankfully, NLIHC chose me as the Communications intern. My experience has been both compelling and insightful so far. The newly revamped communications team, (they have hired two new members since I have been here), have certainly had their hands full and they have fully integrated me within the team. They gave me the task of compiling our monthly media report on my first day, which coincidentally happened to be right around the time when NLIHC released our biggest research report, Out of Reach. I have spent my time here creating social media and blog posts about our policy efforts and tracking journalist who continuously write great pieces on affordable housing issues, among many other things. My time here has indeed been everything that I had imagined it to be.

IMG_3060With only four weeks left, my internship is swiftly coming to a close and I can confidently say that I will miss the supportive, knowledgeable, funny, and easy-going staff here at NLIHC. For those of you like me, who deeply care about affordable housing and want to work for an organization that actively advocates for those who are not in the capacity to do so, NLIHC is the perfect place.

Whether it is with the Communications, Field, Policy, Research, or Design team, you will gain an invaluable experience as an intern that will help you throughout your career. While working here, you will basically be lending a hand in ensuring that every person on the earth has those basic necessities of life.

Meet Our Interns: Christina Payamps-Smith

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is fortunate to have great interns every semester and summer. Spring intern Christina Payamps-Smith, a master’s degree student at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, shares her experiences as an intern with us today.

For as long as I can remember I have had an interest in social justice issues. After graduating from college, like most recent graduates, I contemplated what to do next that involved my interests. After some searching, I quickly found an AmeriCorps position with an affordable housing developer. Since this time, my interest in social justice was pointed to affordable housing.

Using this experience as a jump start, I was eager to learn more about affordable housing and the environment in which housing organizations exist. I started working on my masters in public administration to gain additional knowledge. After several family moves, I found myself living in the D.C. metro area and looking for opportunities to supplement my coursework.  In my search I came across the internship openings at NLIHC and thought, after writing multiple class papers using NLIHC’s publications as resources, that this opportunity would be a perfect fit.

The experience has already proved to be exciting just a few weeks into my internship. I have had the opportunity to attend coalition meetings, meet with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill, attend Congressional committee hearings and interact with people who are dedicated to affordable housing. My time here has educated me on the legislative process and all the people and issues that are involved. Many of the projects that I have worked on so far challenge me to develop my skills and learn new things.

For anyone considering an internship with NLIHC, I would say it is a worthwhile experience. This internship offers an opportunity to build professional skill sets and to truly gain knowledge in all areas of affordable housing.