Returning to a Real Home: Former Inmates Get Second Chance in Public Housing

The Guardian

By Amy Lieberman

Nearly 10 years in prison is long enough to make someone dependent on the basic necessities: food, housing and heat. So when Darnell Smith, 31, prepared to leave Sing Sing correctional facility in Westchester, New York, he began to panic. He had no home outside of his cell.

Smith’s wife and two children – a family now expanded to three kids – lived in one of the 328 New York City public housing developments for low-income residents. But Smith wasn’t allowed to join them, on account of a long-standing housing policy that severely limits the opportunities for convicted felons to live in public housing.

“You’re telling me I cannot live with my wife and kids and the only way I could is if they leave public housing?” Smith said.

Smith considered a homeless shelter, which is the immediate destination for many formerly incarcerated people in New York City. A relative helped him cobble together the monthly $600 for a single room in Harlem with no kitchen – basically like “being in a box”, Smith recalled.

After two years in the room, an unexpected opportunity materialized in fall 2014: Smith could apply to a city pilot project and live in public housing with his family. If he stayed there incident-free for two years, he could then earn a coveted spot on the lease.

“And now, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to help you get back on the lease,” Smith said. “That’s crazy. I never would have thought they would have something like that.”

The opportunity came via a New York City experimental program, similar to those in several other cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Akron, Ohio, that are testing the long-held federal prohibition from public housing of many with criminal records. And the limited evidence thus far suggests those who enter the program are succeeding.

In the New York program, none of the participants have committed a crime or violated parole since their entry, bucking the nation’s recidivism rate of more than four in 10 offenders who return to state prison within three years of their release. This selected batch of inmates that one program recruiter called the “best of the worst” have served time for everything from selling drugs to murder.

As US lawmakers grapple with reform to mass incarceration, they are also facing the challenge of improving the integration of former inmates, whose records become a barrier to entry in housing and employment, and who are often unprepared for the challenge of transitioning to life outside of prison.

“The idea is to test a new way to promote family reunification for people coming out of prison and jail who had family in public housing and who wouldn’t otherwise be able to reconnect,” said Margaret diZerega, director of the family justice program at the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, who is evaluating the pilot’s implementation and impact. “We know the need for housing for people coming out of prison is significant.”

Between 25 and 50% of the homeless population in the US has a history of incarceration, according to the National Health Care for Homeless Council. And formerly incarcerated people who entered homeless shelters in New York City were seven times more likely to abscond from probation during the first month after their release, according to the Vera Institute.

Barack Obama recognized that need earlier this month, in remarks in Newark as part of a criminal justice tour.

“We’ve got to make sure that people who’ve paid their debt to society can earn a second chance,” Obama said in a speech. Obama’s initiative included a nod to dealing with criminal records in public housing, announcing that he would issue new guidance on admitting to public housing those with an arrest record. But his announcement did not affect those with disqualifying convictions on their record.

The New York City Housing Authority, or NYHCA, and a group of non-profit partners recently gained an additional year’s worth of funding for their two-year-old family reentry pilot project, which holds slots for 150 formerly incarcerated people to return to public housing.

The conditions are clear: No convicted sex offenders and no former methamphetamine manufacturers. Applicants stand a good shot at admission if they have been out of a correctional facility for less than three years, can demonstrate they have moved to turn their lives around, and have a family member in public housing who is a lease-holder and consents to host them.

Shango Harvin, 44, simply thought, “Why not?” when he heard about the pilot shortly after he finished a 22-year sentence. He could no longer stay with family and moved in with his sister and nephew to their solitary Upper West Side public housing development, nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding ritzy, pre-war buildings on a tree-lined street.

Harvin lived in and out of public housing as a child and began dealing drugs when he was nine. He got arrested when he was 21 for selling drugs and accessory to murder, the result of a dispute over a woman between his friends and some men who were shot dead, he said. Harvin has spent almost all of his adult life in prison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, a certificate in theology and converted to Islam. Harvin found the most startling changes outside of prison were sounds – cell phones beeping, the automated pings on a bus.

“The only sounds or rings you hear in prison are the CO’s [Commanding Officers] phones,” he explained, speaking over the noise of a Cowboys game in a crowded downtown Manhattan bar.

Harvin initially reveals little of the shock that greeted him after two decades in prison. He is open in talking about his past. But certain clues offer a window into his seclusion, like his distaste and confusion for all things social media.

Out of prison for about a year, Harvin says adjusting to life in a quiet public housing building on the Upper West Side was not especially difficult. It also kept him away from East Harlem, where he got into drug dealing.

Harvin sometimes still revisits those same corners through his work as a recruiter at Exodus Transitional Community, a Harlem-based reentry organization staffed mostly by formerly incarcerated people.

Exodus is the most successful partner organization in recruiting pilot applicants, with about 25 people to date.

“If you are coming home it doesn’t matter what job you have. If you don’t know where you are going at night that creates stress,” said Diana Ortiz, associate director of Exodus.

A hard sell in New York

In New York, the pilot remains something of a hard sell, despite its offer of stability. NYCHA has received 96 referrals and accepted 51 individuals, leaving about 100 open slots.

The Spanish Harlem-based organization Getting Out and Staying Out works with about 150 clients who are reentering society. Some of them are eligible for the pilot, but the nonprofit has yet to make a successful referral.

“A lot of our clients don’t have family in NYCHA or they don’t want to return to that environment,” said Sarah Blanco, director of programs. She added that while it can be an “amazing opportunity”, one qualifying family viewed the application process as an investigation.

“It can feel really invasive. Even if they qualify, filling out paperwork and answering a lot of questions can be daunting for people if you are just getting out of prison or jail.”

Nora Reissig, the director of family services at NYCHA, said some individuals who might otherwise live in public housing “unofficially” and in violation of public housing policy may be afraid to sign up for the program for fear that they might be kicked out of housing entirely.

But, she said: “This is not a ‘gotcha’ sort of housing authority thing.”

Participants are also accountable to parole officers and NYCHA case managers they check in with regularly.

‘Housing in and of itself is not enough’

Stefan LoBuglio, the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s corrections and reentry division, cautions against placing excessive emphasis solely on housing.

“Housing in and of itself is not enough,” said LoBuglio, whose organization provides research and advice to policymakers. “It’s the same with employment. It isn’t housing. It isn’t employment. What is really critical is the motivation and helping individuals consider their thinking process and how they go about their daily lives.”

For Smith, who now lives in St Nicholas Houses, in West Harlem, his wife and children kept him connected to the outside world as he served two near consecutive sentences for attempted armed robbery and possession of stolen property. The charges sound worse than the actual crimes, he says, particularly the first one, which stemmed from him chasing after a man who jumped one of his friends.

“My family was my everything,” he said. “It wasn’t easy for my wife but I’m glad she did it because she allowed me to keep the world in my mind and remember this place exists.”

Far from the Astoria, Queens, public housing development where he grew up, Smith feels safe and anonymous in his new building. After six months of unemployment, he joined a union and now works as a construction worker. His parole is up next year and he is eager to get on the lease with his wife. He isn’t planning on passing down the apartment to one of their three sons, though.

“This isn’t really a good place to raise children, not even because of the violence but just the mindset it instills in you,” he said. “You believe there is nothing outside of it. We are going to break that cycle now.”