Today, Robert Jackson has dreams as vibrant as his personality. And he’s making them happen. He’s been clean and sober since Oct. 15, 2014. With the help of RS EDEN’s rehabilitation program, Alliance Housing, and his recovery community, he’s got an unmistakable brightness in his eyes.
But he hasn’t always been so optimistic about his life journey. The jovial 51-year-old St. Paul native had an arguably normal childhood, attended both Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, and by all accounts, was forging a path towards a successful life.
But life threw him a couple curve balls.
“I acquired a drug habit in 1988, which unfortunately sent me to prison,” Jackson said.
After a couple stints in prison, the Department of Corrections released him into the world with few resources.
“They paroled me to the Salvation Army because I had no address. No housing, no nothing.” He shrugs. “Basically, I was on my own. No help.”
“I couldn’t land a job because I had a criminal record. Then I couldn’t find housing because I had no money for deposits and I had a felony,” Jackson explained. “So I’ve been living with people, girlfriends and drug addicts, for the past 20 years, basically.”
Jackson’s experience epitomizes the predicament that ex-offenders face.
On Jan. 1, 2014, the ‘Ban the Box’ law went into effect in Minnesota, restricting employers from asking about criminal histories in initial phases of an application process. The law is aimed at giving ex-offenders a fair shake at employment.
Currently, ‘Ban the Box’ isn’t the only nationwide initiative attempting to level the playing field for ex-offenders. On April 4, 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a federal guideline, warning landlords that umbrella policies aimed at denying housing to ex-offenders may be discrimination.
It cites that the disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration leave minority candidates more likely to be denied on applications. And because of most rental screening policies, they don’t even have a chance to plead their case.
“People are their own best advocate,” said Christopher Lowe, Veterans’ Justice Advocate at Amicus, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping inmates and ex-offenders successfully reintegrate.
“It gives [people] a chance to sell themselves,” Lowe said.
But all the frothy declarations of discrimination and legal half-measures don’t translate to a new abundance of felon-friendly housing and decent job opportunities. And having both housing and a job is more than a necessity; the absence of one or the other can spell danger for many.
Back to the block
Faced with little options, some ex-offenders resort to living in illegitimate or sketchy housing situations. Going back to “old familiar,” as Jackson puts it, can come with consequences that lead them on a fast track back to prison. Old habits can die hard, especially when it comes to illegal activities and criminal lifestyles that once grew out of necessity or with its own advantages.
Lauri Woodard, a volunteer for Justice 4 All at TakeAction Minnesota, elaborates.
“If they can’t provide a legitimate address or change addresses without notice, they can get violated,” she said. Then it’s off the block and back into the slammer.
Justin Terrell, Program Manager for Justice 4 All at TakeAction Minnesota, is one of the change makers building a multiracial movement to address racial, gender, economic and social equity in Minnesota. Together with his colleagues and volunteers like Woodard, they are involved in everything from restoring voting rights to preventing the opening of a private prison in Appleton. Next year, they hope to help ban private prisons throughout the state. They are no strangers to the issues of housing problems.
“I get phone calls pretty much everyday from people facing barriers to housing and wondering why ‘Ban the Box’ doesn’t apply to landlords,” Terrell said.
Contrary to popular perception, prison populations aren’t dominated by sex offenders and murderers, but with folks serving time for lesser crimes. But the stigma of felony convictions and incarceration follow every ex-offender around, no matter the severity of the crime or time elapsed since the offense.
For the majority of ex-felons facing reentry, if given the support and opportunities to do better, they will do better. This is not consistently the case now. CBS News and the StarTribune report around 40 percent of inmates on supervised release in Minnesota are re-incarcerated within three years. The violations that send them back include anything from dirty urine analysis tests to new criminal charges to simple technicalities, such as failure to find employment or housing.
So it’s no wonder that after prison time or completing a treatment program, the struggle to find housing sends many folks right back down the rabbit hole. Minnesota is plagued with housing inequity. The state sorely lacks enough transitional housing, and those that do exist struggle with interminable bottlenecks and waiting lists. The funding simply isn’t there to meet the demand. For Jackson, it took almost two years on a waiting list to get into Alliance Apartments, where he now lives. Even shelters have lotteries, leaving many to compete for overnight beds. Other options, such as halfway houses and sober living environments, are great options but have shared sleeping quarters and are meant to be more short term—a year or less.
The vast majority of landlords who dominate the rental market in the Twin Cities, such as KRC Apartments and Mint Properties, still won’t even consider renting to people with felony records. At all. To date, the discrimination guideline put forth by HUD seems to have little effect on housing application denials. Landlords just find more creative ways to deny potential renters. Discrimination is hard to prove, and accessible legal resources don’t really exist.
Landlords do have some legitimate concerns. People with criminal histories, as Woodard puts it, “have a history of making bad decisions.”
Landlords fear that if that person goes back to making their old bad decisions, they will endanger the safety and security of their other tenants, Woodard said. And the process of evicting someone is expensive and time-consuming. So they’d just rather not take the chance.
Twin Cities’ cold shoulder
Even without a criminal record, now is not an ideal time to be a person in need of affordable housing in Minnesota. In the midst of a near billion dollar surplus, a $130 million affordable housing bill, promoted by the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and others, was just squashed in the Minnesota Legislature’s last session. Currently, the city of Edina is considering adopting a policy that would allow developers to opt out of building affordable housing by paying a fee. According to the StarTribune, Edina has seen a boom of luxury apartments crop up in the city, making 96 percent of its 23,000 housing units in the city unaffordable to anyone making less than $43,000 a year.
Edina is just one example of the roundabout way that more affluent, established and mostly white communities keep out minorities and folks experiencing poverty and homelessness.
Some consider the affordable housing situation so dire, that in 2015, civil rights attorney Michael Allen, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing and three local neighborhood organizations, filed a complaint with HUD against Minneapolis and St. Paul. They accused state agencies of oversaturating affordable housing in already struggling, low-income neighborhoods.
These policies, they claim, perpetuate the economic and social isolation of people in low-income communities, and limit the upward mobility and opportunities for residents. An agreement between the two parties was just reached last month, but it is too early to see any results.
Ironically, ex-offenders are also disqualified from becoming renters through many local Affordable Housing nonprofits. Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a giant multi-service agency dedicated to combating homelessness and providing housing for people experiencing poverty, manages or operates 1,147 units throughout Minnesota. However, of all of those units, only 14 are managed by their program called Restart, are formally reserved for ex-offenders. And on their website, they have a laundry list of potential disqualifications that include recent misdemeanors (5 years) and all felonies (10 years). PPL claims that they do fill out waivers for renters with criminal records on a case-by-case basis. But the waiver option is not advertised on the website, inadvertently turning away many potential candidates by way of omission.
And it’s not entirely PPL’s fault. The lopsided access to PPL housing for folks with felonies versus folks without is often the result of a cornucopia of complicated factors. The stigma of incarceration socially manifests itself through exclusionary funding from donors and incessant opposition and pushback from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) community members. Given the hostile climate that already exists, ex-offenders especially are left high and dry.
“The challenging nature of our conversations with some communities about plain affordable housing…would lead us to never approach them with anything as difficult as housing for ex-offenders,” said Barbara McCormick, PPL’s Senior Vice President of Housing with Services.
“A lot of people just aren’t willing to take a risk with our demographic.” said Randy Anderson, a substance abuse counselor at RS EDEN and a steering committee member for the Second Chance Coalition. He’s also an ex-offender who spent 54 months in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute narcotics, the result of paying for an expensive drug habit.
He asserts that post-treatment housing and employment are of critical importance to his clients.
Many clients come into RS EDEN with a variety of criminal convictions. Some are furloughed from jail. Their criminal records often come as a consequence of decisions made in active drug and alcohol addiction, which further stigmatizes them and complicates their path to recovery and reentry.
“RS EDEN is the last stop on the block for many of these guys. They either succeed or they go right back to prison,” Anderson said.
Recently, Anderson contributed to a major legal victory known as the Drug Sentencing Reform Act. It changes the scope and lessens the severity of some sentencing guidelines, condemning fewer offenders to the long term consequences of felony convictions. According to Anderson, a fifth-degree narcotics possession, currently classified as a felony, will become a gross misdemeanor as of Aug. 1.
Nevertheless, 1 out of 4 people in Minnesota currently have a criminal record. That means that a large portion of our population literally lives in limbo, and faces huge obstacles in simply acquiring a safe place to call home.
“Housing is a really important piece for people being able to have their own space, to move forward, to be around other people that are pro-social, that aren’t committing crimes, to be back in working society,” said Woodard.
Black and brown bodies remain in chains
Obstacles to successful reentry are particularly damaging to families of color. Lack of opportunity, the vicious cycle of poverty and lack of options that lead to recidivism disproportionately affect people of color, said Salvador Miranda, Associate Director and Director of Training at Voices for Racial Justice.
“It’s a system that sets us up to fail,” Terrell explains.
The overabundance of African Americans in Minnesota prisons have catastrophic implications. Black people make up only 5 percent of Minnesota’s population, but 35 percent of the prison population, Terrell said. Native American, Latino and Asian populations are also grossly overrepresented.
And as Terrell and Miranda both point out, women of color are disproportionately affected. They carry the burden as the sole breadwinner and caregiver while their male partners are locked up. And people of color are more likely to be renters, leaving them vulnerable to evictions if unauthorized residents are living with them.
However, Terrell argues that housing inequity is a people-made problem that can be people-solved.
“People benefit from the way things are,” he said. This is not an accident. Creating barriers to housing creates profits for someone else. We have to figure out who decides who benefits and we have to change that.”
And ultimately, in perpetuating a system that stacks the deck against ex-offenders, promotes recidivism and creates barriers to housing and employment, everybody in the community loses. Crime rates can increase. More taxpayer money is pumped into incarceration costs. The prison-industrial complex flourishes, which Miranda said creates a climate similar to modern day slavery.
“There is no wall between us and the people that are incarcerated. The idea that you can remove someone from society, put them in a box and then that problem is solved, is a lie. Our liberation is bound together,” said Terrell.
In midst of the stigma and disconnect, some Minnesota prisoners are fighting back from behind prison walls. BRIDGE: Prison Justice, in collaboration with Voices for Racial Justice, was founded by Kevin Reese, a prisoner at the Lino Lakes facility, and VRJ executive director Vina Kay. It has blossomed into a partnership that works to bridge the gap between the general public and incarcerated persons, as well as advocate for policy changes that affect ex-offenders.
“From working with the guys [incarcerated] at Lino Lakes and Faribault, those are the guys that we need to come home and lead our community,” said Terrell. “Those are the guys that will put an end to the shootings, who will lead entrepreneurial projects, who are going to change how we feel about black men.”
The faint light at the end of the tunnel
While Terrell acknowledges that housing equity has been an enormous uphill battle, community organizers, ex-offenders, and residents alike are creating meaningful change. Voices for Racial Justice’s BRIDGE: Prison Justice, Take Action, Second Chance Coalition, and Amicus are just a few organizations spearheading the movement. Other organizations, such as Better Futures Enterprises, RS EDEN and Alliance Housing, provide integrated care that help people get a fair shot at starting over.
Housing First, a nationwide movement that seeks to end homelessness and help to create long-term housing for disadvantaged populations, promotes what is referred to as a ‘Scattered Site’ model.
Scattered site models secure housing in apartments throughout a community. The program recruits a landlord willing to take a chance, guarantees payment of rent regardless of outcome, and in turn a participant with a criminal record is given a chance to prove themselves as a good tenant. Many then eventually take over the lease themselves.
“The participants are around people that don’t necessarily have criminal records,” Woodard explains. “If you made decisions in the past that are anti-social and led to criminal behavior, and you’re placed around pro-social people, you tend to make pro-social decisions.”
She continues. “It’s evidence-based. It’s been researched. It’s what works.” So far, it has shown a lot of promise and has contributed to 85 to 90 percent housing retention rates in some areas of the country.
But the reality is that overall, our communities still continue to stigmatize ex-offenders and actively contribute to the vicious cycle of incarceration and recidivism.
Robert Jackson has no delusions about the challenges he faces, even as he prepares for a bright future. He is finishing up classes at Summit University, with hopes to buy and renovate his own home one day.
“In five years, I see myself running my own construction crew, living in my own house and owning my own toys.” He laughs. “I’d love to live in Brooklyn Park, or in Highland Park again.”
For now, he has found his community in Alliance Housing, a pioneer in long-term housing solutions for individuals and families fighting poverty, addiction and homelessness. And unlike a lot of affordable housing, Alliance apartments are felon-friendly. They try to give everyone a fair shot.
“Look, I live in drug central, right off of Franklin and Chicago,” he explains. “But at least I know I have somewhere safe that I can call home. And that’s what I like about Alliance.”
And even for the most disadvantaged among us, the universal truth remains: there really is no place like home.
Here are some of the ways you can help promote successful re-entry projects and equity for ex-offenders in our community:
Resources for our ex-offender community members
Contact any of these organizations for assistance in your recovery, housing, employment or other reentry concerns.
(Note: Although the website formally states that people with criminal records are disqualified from PPL housing, applicants with criminal histories are accepted on a case-by-case basis.)