A picture of Seattle is shown to illustrate a program designed to break the homelessness-prison cycle
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Seattle’s Pilot Program Aims to Disrupt Homelessness-Incarceration Cycle

April 11, 2024

This story is part of the Housing Solutions Lab series highlighting work that advances equitable housing policy from our network of Peer Cities and Public Housing Authority partners around the country. The Seattle Housing Authority is a participant in the Lab’s PHA Community of Practice and helped inform our research with the Center for Justice Innovation on housing and criminal justice system partnerships.

Sarah Zavaleta, Terry Mowatt, and Marie Wiley from left to right. All three are part of Seattle's pilot program aiming to breaks the prison-homelessness cycle

From left to right: Sarah Zavaleta, SHA research and evaluation analyst;  Terry Mowatt and Marie Wiley, SHA strategic advisors.  Photo credit: Seattle Housing Authority.

By Daria Guzzo 

Across the country, 600,000 Americans return to their communities from state and federal prisons each year but face significant obstacles to finding safe, affordable housing. Such barriers have contributed to record homelessness, while also fueling a cycle of recidivism and reincarceration for those leaving prison because they lack a stable place to live.

In Seattle, the public housing authority is hoping to take a step in disrupting this cycle by launching a pilot program to support 30 justice-impacted individuals and their households to find safe and affordable housing.

Research shows that applying for housing while incarcerated is arduous – and often futile – with nearly 50,000 people immediately entering shelters upon release from prison. What’s more, formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly ten times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to a 2018 report by Lucius Couloute of the Prison Policy Initiative, which also found that recently released people of color have higher rates of unsheltered homelessness.

To help overcome these challenges, the Seattle Housing Authority launched a unique collaboration in March 2023. SHA hired two members of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, a group founded to combat social injustices inside the Washington State prison system, to serve as strategic advisors to help develop the pilot program. The collaboration is intended to both strengthen the justice-involved community and provide a second chance for those individuals reintegrating into their neighborhoods. 

“The most important end goal is that justice-impacted people do not have to experience housing deficiency so that they can start taking their journey to a sustainable life,” said Marie Wiley, a member of the BPC Community Group and one of SHA’s strategic advisors who spoke with the Housing Solutions Lab recently about the joint efforts to interrupt this cycle.

Read the full report, Housing Is Justice: Exploring State and Local Innovations, by Jessica Yager, Julian Adler, Sophia House, and Brianna Williams (CJI) and Martha Galvez, Claudia Aiken, Aisha Balogun, and Nora Carrier (Housing Solutions Lab).

Justice-involved people face multiple challenges during reintegration

Research has shown that regardless of an individual’s circumstances – from the crime committed to the length of time served to the time that has elapsed – the mere existence of a criminal record is a major barrier to obtaining adequate housing. 

In the last decade, several cities – including Oakland, Portland, and Seattle – have enacted “fair chance” laws, which limit background checks to make housing more accessible. Research on the impacts of these policies is limited, although one recent study suggested that such fair chance ordinances could inadvertently lead to other forms of discrimination on the part of landlords. But their popularity in some cities signals that policy makers and community leaders understand the challenges that people reintegrating may face when searching for housing.

"There's no silver bullet as we all know—it will take a comprehensive and balanced approach to make progress in addressing the affordability crisis."

Public housing authorities have broad discretion about whom to house, and many PHAs, like SHA, have been working to remove barriers to access PHA-assisted housing and connect individuals returning to their communities to services. A number of housing authorities across the country have worked to reduce barriers by considering shorter lookback periods or providing exemptions for nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors, with some, including Seattle, moving toward weighing the full scope of an applicant’s situation.  

“Over time, we’ve been trying to think about who has access to our housing and who doesn’t and what are the reasons behind those things,” said Andria Lazaga, Senior Executive Advisor with the Seattle Housing Authority, who spoke with the Housing Solutions Lab about the joint effort. Part of this reintegration housing project is also looking at what we offer. Sometimes it’s about access, but sometimes it’s also that we are not offering what the community wants.” 

To be sure, there are numerous challenges that reintegrating individuals face in finding housing, according to researchers. 

For starters, you must have a job. Most housing programs require a pay stub in order to provide more than transitional housing. But finding employment presents its own set of hurdles for this population, such as the required documentation that reintegrating individuals may not have immediately available: identification, Social Security card, birth certificate, and bank account statements. The lack of a recent rental history can also create complications during the housing application process.

“There are a lot of folks who weed themselves out from trying to access our housing because they think they are not going to be successful in making it through our processes,” said Lazaga. “We very rarely deny anyone on public housing or the voucher side, but that doesn’t mean that landlords don’t deny folks.” 

An intentional program design

While the pilot program is in its early stages of development, SHA has taken a deliberate approach in designing it so that they can be more intentional in their proposed solutions.  

For example, SHA wants to help individuals get on the waitlist sooner and ensure that reintegrating individuals know their options. The agency is also interested in building partnerships with other housing authorities and related agencies in the state, such as the Department of Corrections (DOC), to lessen the burden on reintegrating individuals who already have to interact with a plethora of systems and processes.

The housing authority also wants to consider other strategies, such as setting aside vouchers for partners so they can prioritize their use for justice-impacted individuals. While partnering with high-capacity organizations can be easier for SHA, those organizations may not reach certain groups. It’s why the authority may also partner with smaller-sized institutions that may be better equipped to serve these communities directly. 

“What do we have to provide an individual so they can have that time to create their own agency, rather than having to just be forced out into the world and jump right back in that survival cycle?”

For their part, both of BPC’s strategic advisors are focused on making sure that individuals who are reintegrating don’t have to operate in survival mode as they get their feet underneath them. They understand through lived experience how the push for individuals to jump right back into daily life can add stress and heighten the stakes of acquiring both a job and housing as soon as possible.

“You don’t really understand all the things you’re up against,” said Terry Mowatt, member of the BPC Community Group and SHA strategic advisor, as he recalled the time his Community Custody Officer told him he had to move from his originally approved address within a week. “It was easy for me to see how easy it is to go backwards.”

Mowatt envisions a support system that allows individuals to reflect and make an active choice about what they want their life to become. With that in mind, he said, the question for policymakers and advocates becomes: “What do we have to provide an individual so they can have that time to create their own agency, rather than having to just be forced out into the world and jump right back in that survival cycle? Which we know if it doesn’t go right, it ends up with people going back to their default tendencies.”

By amplifying the voices of those impacted, the BPC is striving to help the wider community realize that individuals in prison are still a part of the community – and they, too, want to come home. Once the humanity and rights of justice-involved individuals are normalized and restored, they said, change can start to happen within the correction departments and other agencies to raise the standard of care for those in the justice system.

“Now the community can be looking at DOC like, ‘Hey, these are our people. How are you treating our people? We’re paying you to make sure our people are coming home equipped to thrive.’ Now, the responsibility looks different,” said Mowatt. “The community has to come back home to [the] community eventually. Why not support the community that we have inside instead of waiting until they’re coming out with no education, no preparation, none of the tools that [are] going to help them become better citizens?”

Building necessary trust for change

One of the collaboration’s goals is to prioritize trust-building with justice-involved individuals and the community at large. “I’m a firm believer that changing thinking is the most impactful way to make change,” Lazaga said. 

SHA recognizes that housing authorities have played a part in the way governmental systems have historically harmed communities of color. The United States’ criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates Black Americans, and SHA acknowledges that experiencing incarceration makes it harder for individuals to find and remain in housing. 

“Our efforts to improve our policies – the way in which we handle criminal history for admission, for example – are far better than they used to be, but of course, the reputation is out there,” said Lazaga.

“How can I trust you if I’m not in a relationship with you? This is about relationships. This is not transactional.”

The authority recognizes that the first step in rectifying that image is to build a stronger bridge to the community, and that, often, those relationships take time to build and are not automatically transferable. As strategic partners, both Wiley and Mowatt have provided invaluable insights into relationship building and have led a robust community engagement campaign to get input and buy-in from residents on the pilot program so that individuals’ lived experiences can be at the center of SHA’s approach.

“‘How can I trust you if I’m not in a relationship with you? I don’t know you,’” said Wiley. “And so being able to just continuously drill that at SHA – that, you know, this is about relationships. This is not transactional. It’s not just about providing services because we have the resources.”

The partnership will not be a silver bullet, though. SHA is still a large, complex agency subject to many regulations, and Mowatt and Wiley recognize the limitations that come with a hierarchical structure. Lazaga also anticipates that there will be distractions amid the city’s housing crisis, so her team is trying to identify measures they need to take to prevent this work from stalling. She also knows it will require buy-in and collaboration within the authority from other departments, which all have their own protocols and structures. But having Wiley and Mowatt as partners has already proven to have immense value. 

“Being on the same team, for me, has made a really big difference,” said Lazaga. “Not to mention the wonderful skills, knowledge, and personalities of Terry and Marie that are able to hold us – hold me – accountable. And those are things that can [allow] you to have difficult conversations but still be in a relationship.”

You can find additional work by the Lab in the criminal justice space, including tips on funding interventions, suggestions for building partnerships that result in change, and a national scan of programs that collaborate across agencies to break the prison-housing instability cycle.

Read other stories in our Housing Solutions Lab series on Oakland, California; and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Written by Daria Guzzo, a first-year MPA student and Georgina and Charlotte Bloomberg Public Service Fellow at NYU Wagner. At the NYU Furman Center, Daria is a Graduate Research Assistant on the Policy and Communication team. Before starting at NYU, she was the Equitable Development Manager at Capital Impact Partners, a national nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI). 

Edited by Donna Borak, the Director of External Affairs of the NYU Furman Center and Adjunct Professor of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Prior to joining the Furman Center, Donna spent more than 20 years as an economic policy reporter in Washington and New York. She is an Emmy award-winning business journalist, who has written for Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The American Banker, and The Associated Press. 

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