October 12, 2006

Once a criminal, always a criminal: Discrimination of public housing applicants

by Shawna Williams

After being involved with the homeless population for the last two years I began to see why there are anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 individuals and families still homeless in Austin. The issue at hand is the denial of housing based on past criminal history. Many of the homeless population in Austin have been denied public housing because of a crime they committed years ago. Is it fair to punish someone based on a crime or felony they committed 5, 10 or 20 years ago? I think not.

Many of these folks pay their dues by spending time in prison and jail. They come out of jail without being able to get a decent paying job, if a job at all. It isn’t right to punish people for life by restricting housing, it is unjust. Yet many believe justice can only be served when criminals, who have served their time, are faced with lifelong shame and societal punishment. Even after they have received treatment, therapy and an education these folks are still looked down upon as not being deserving of basic human rights.

According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch: No Second Chance campaign, the dangers of denying ex-offenders and criminals in public housing is far more costly to our society and cities than it would be to approve applicants with criminal history. Transient families and children are at high risk for educational and developmental problems. Homeless individuals with criminal history are left to live in uninhabitable places and are susceptible to catch and spread communicable diseases such as AIDS and Tuberculosis.

Those who come out of jail to no housing most likely will become repeat criminals due to the high risk of drug activity and violence associated with living on the streets. Relapse of those recovering is almost inescapable when they are forced to go back into the streets and shelters amongst the high rate of drug and substance abuse. If given a second chance these folks could contribute to our society. So what can Housing Authorities do to get more people into housing and off the streets? I suggest they begin by using progressive public housing models such as the L.A. and NYC housing authorities.

These housing authorities have implemented more just policies which allow for an individualized applicant instead of an instant denial based on criminal history. This allows applicants to show progress, specific crime details, dismissal and treatment since the crime(s) occurred. L.A. and NYC housing authorities provide wrap around services to address drug and alcohol abuse amongst housing applicants and residents. These dynamic and less-discriminatory policies will reduce repeat offenders, decrease homelessness and encourage substance abuse treatment. I’m asking City Councils and community leaders to address this issue by working with Housing of Urban Development and local housing authorities on eligibility criteria policy changes and to increase overall funding for affordable housing. And lastly I’m asking citizens, with and without homes, to speak up and do something about this major injustice.

We need action to see change!

e-mail:: williams.shawna@gmail.com


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