Partnerships between Housing and Criminal Justice Agencies Can Help Disrupt Homelessness-Carceral Cycle

A joint report by the Center for Justice Innovation and the Housing Solutions Lab at New York University’s Furman Center, “Housing Is Justice: Exploring State and Local Innovations,” explores how partnerships between the criminal justice and housing sectors can help disrupt the reinforcing relationship between housing insecurity, homelessness, and criminal justice involvement (known as the “homelessness-carceral cycle”). The report explores innovative approaches to such partnerships taken by criminal justice system actors and housing agencies, as well as the challenges these partnerships have faced and the characteristics of successful partnerships.

Research has consistently demonstrated a strong relationship between housing insecurity, homelessness, and criminal justice system involvement. In many parts of the country, people experiencing homelessness receive citations, fines, and even jail time for having no other option but to sleep and carry out other essential life activities in public settings, as shown in the current U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. Grants Pass. At the same time, people with criminal justice system involvement face many barriers to obtaining and keeping housing after being released, including strict tenant screening practices that often render people with arrest or conviction histories ineligible for housing. Justice-involved individuals may also struggle to find stable employment or secure financial assistance due to their conviction histories, which can make it difficult to afford rent and other housing costs. Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, courts refuse to parole individuals who will be unstably housed or homeless after release, prolonging their incarceration. These challenges disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American/Alaska Indian individuals.

The report’s authors sought to understand the extent to which partnerships between criminal justice system actors and housing agencies can or could help disrupt the homelessness-carceral cycle. The researchers first conducted a literature review to better understand the connections between housing instability, homelessness, and the criminal justice system, as well as a program scan of more than 50 existing partnerships at the nexus of these sectors. On the basis of this knowledge, they developed and distributed a web-based survey to programs involved in the Center for Justice Innovation’s technical assistance network and similar justice-focused national networks. The survey asked questions about the link between housing instability and the criminal legal process, programs’ past and current partnerships with the housing sector, and potential areas for future collaboration. The researchers received responses from 66 different agencies and later conducted detailed interviews with 32 practitioners associated with some of these agencies.

The researchers identified several types of existing partnerships that use creative approaches to address different points of the homelessness-carceral cycle. Some programs aim to prevent individuals from entering the cycle in the first place – for example, by connecting people with unmet behavioral or social needs to supportive services that can help them both achieve housing stability and avoid interactions with the criminal justice system. Other partnerships identified by the researchers help justice-involved individuals avoid homelessness by providing housing navigators that can help people find and secure housing, operating “problem-solving courts” that provide supportive services to people struggling with substance use disorders or other challenges, or creating new transitional or permanent housing solutions that serve people leaving incarceration. Still other partnerships strive for systemic change by implementing state or local policies that limit private landlords’ access to certain information in tenant screening reports and their ability to turn down potential tenants based on criminal records, amending eligibility criteria for public or supportive housing, and providing financial incentives to housing developers to prioritize housing access for justice-involved individuals.

Through survey responses and interviews with housing and criminal justice system actors, the researchers identified several challenges to cross-sector collaboration, as well as the characteristics of successful partnerships. Respondents shared that it is often difficult to overcome fundamental differences between housing and justice system agencies, including different goals, approaches, and even language used to communicate about the experiences and needs of affected communities. The report notes that “justice agencies are not designed to, and typically don’t, think about housing or work closely with housing partners.” Deeply ingrained social stigmas about people who experience homelessness and/or have been involved with the criminal justice system – as well as a belief that these challenges are too big to be solved – can contribute to institutional inertia in pursuing alternatives to the status quo. Even when there is mutual interest and will to initiate a partnership, the bureaucratic nature of some of these agencies can slow progress on the creation of innovative partnerships, especially when funding and staff capacity are already strained.

The researchers found that partnerships between housing agencies and criminal justice system actors were more effective when they invested in building trust and strong relationships with staff at partner agencies. When strong interagency relationships were in place, it became easier for these partnerships to align their goals and plans of action, build collaborative teams with the right staff, and better engage with key stakeholders to ensure the success and longevity of the partnership. However, the report notes that these partnerships alone are not enough to fully disrupt the vicious cycle of housing instability and criminal justice system involvement. The authors emphasize that increased funding for housing assistance and the development of new affordable housing units is essential to conquering this cycle.

Read the report at: