Incarceration and Homelessness

written by Anna Blasco
October 31, 2011

According to the Pew Center on the States, between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than 1 in 100 adults behind bars. When this growing population exits the corrections system, they are frequently at risk for homelessness, which can in turn increase the likelihood of another imprisonment. People leaving incarceration tend to have low incomes, and, often due to their criminal history, lack the ability to obtain housing through the channels that are open to other low-income people.

Recently, the Baltimore-based organization Health Care for the Homeless released a report on the link between incarceration and homelessness. This study focused on the situation in the Baltimore region, which has a particularly large population of people in jails and prisons. According to the report, among the cities with the largest jails, Baltimore has the highest percentage of its population in jail, more than three times that of New York City or Los Angeles County.

This report draws a very direct line between housing and homelessness. For example, 74 percent those surveyed who reported experiencing homelessness before their incarceration reported that stable housing would have prevented their incarceration. In Baltimore City, people experiencing homelessness spend an average of 35 days in jail annually.

It is important to point out that the connection goes both ways – incarceration often leads to homelessness, and homelessness can result in incarceration. This report found that the number of people who lacked stable housing after being released from incarceration almost doubled, from 35 percent having unstable housing prior to their most recent incarceration to 63 percent 6 months after being released.

Investing in housing solutions may be the answer to Baltimore’s predicament. When you take into consideration that incarceration costs $2,200 per person per month in Maryland, housing certainly starts to look like a good answer. On our website, we have looked at some successful models for addressing this, including re-entry housing and stabilizing families. Among the report’s recommended courses of action for Baltimore is to expand Housing First models of permanent supportive housing.