A housing rally (photo:John McCarten/City Council)
Two out of five people returning to New York City from prison last year were released to a shelter or another placement for homeless adults, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). At roughly 2,050 people, it was enough to fill the largest hotel in midtown Manhattan. They often ended up sleeping on the streets.
Those inside the so-called prison-to-shelter pipeline say cycling through the criminal legal and shelter systems is destabilizing and dehumanizing as they attempt to reenter society. The typical initial shelter stay for unhoused people under DOCCS supervision is 34 to 38 days, a grueling period compounded by the pressures of finding – at a minimum – permanent housing and employment.
"There should be a quicker process and these things should be asked and anticipated because it's dangerous out there in the streets," said a man who had recently been released from Rikers Island after being held on a parole violation. State parole officers directed him to Bellevue Men's Shelter in midtown Manhattan, where most New York City residents leaving incarceration are sent when they have no place else to go.
"I had no idea what I was in for when I went to Bellevue," he said, calling the level of sanitation and security "atrocious." After a few hours he decided to leave. "I started going to other organizations, sleeping on the train at night," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a pending parole hearing.
People have gone from state prison into New York City shelters more than 25,000 times over the past eight years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. A DOCCS spokesperson said the agency tries to "avoid" referring ex-prisoners to shelters by exploring housing options and making referrals to other agencies.
The cycle is also prevalent in the city jail system; in 2021, there were at any point on average 2,300 people in the city shelter system either on parole, released from jail, or both, according to the city's Department of Social Services (DSS).
The system reinforces racial disparities in the criminal legal system and in housing. Black people make up roughly half the people in DOCCS custody and, according to Coalition for the Homeless, 56% of heads of household in city shelters (including single adults), despite being only a quarter of the New York City population. As of March, there were about 49,000 people sleeping in DSS shelters each night, with thousands more in other types of shelters, on the streets and subways.
The lack of stable housing is one of many factors that lead to recidivism, especially for homeless people who frequently come in contact with police. Supportive housing with tailored-social services has been shown in some cases to reduce recidivism.
New York City officials have for years blamed the state's reentry planning for being limited and short-sighted, beginning only a matter of months before the end of often-yearslong prison sentences. Advocates have added to that list rampant discrimination from landlords and a lack of both city and state investment in transitional and deeply affordable housing.
"There's not one entity that bears responsibility for making sure people leaving prison and jail have a place to call home even though stable housing is clearly key on a common sense level," said Lily Shapiro, policy counsel at the Fortune Society, a large reentry service provider based in New York City.
While DOCCS covers parole, which includes approving and sometimes making referrals for housing, it doesn't provide or ensure it for the vast majority of those leaving prison who cannot afford to rent an apartment. The city is legally required to provide temporary shelter through its Department of Social Services, and the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and Department of Probation offer some reentry services. Housing is often secured through a patchwork of reentry service providers using a mix of city, state, and federal vouchers.
While the pattern is the same year after year, few pieces of legislation have percolated in Albany and little funding has been set aside this year to address the situation.
"The sad reality is that the state government dumps state prisoners and parolees into New York City, often directly into our shelters, in a way that doesn't help anyone," then-Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference in June 2021.
At the city level, Mayor Eric Adams has presented few detailed plans around reentry services or transitional housing. His administration has focused on expanding safe haven shelter beds and long-term capital spending on affordable housing. In late May, he announced police and social workers have connected over 1,300 New Yorkers to shelter as part of his Subway Safety Plan.
The city is in the process of developing a long-term transitional housing plan to help those returning from incarceration, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams told Gotham Gazette. The details of that plan will be made public when they are ready, the spokesperson said.
"Even if we had the most robust transitional services that would not solve the problem in and of itself," Shapiro said. "But to be clear we do not have the most robust safety net for people coming home from prison."
“There is not a tremendous amount in the state budget that passed that would impact the prison-to-shelter pipeline, which is a very complex issue,” she added.
The state legislative session ending this week and the city budget being negotiated ahead of the new fiscal year that starts July 1 are two of the last major policy-making periods of 2022. During state budget negotiations earlier this year, advocates and some legislators pushed for the Housing Access Voucher Program and a stronger Fair Chance for Housing Act. The two bills could help New Yorkers who are on parole and homeless find permanent housing only in the long run. They would likely do little to stop people going immediately from prison or jail to shelter and according to the bill's sponsor, Senate Housing Chair Brian Kavanagh, there is no carve-out in the voucher program for those set to leave prison. Neither bill passed and they appear unlikely to advance before the state legislative session ends.
Governor Kathy Hochul and the Legislature staked out $25 billion for a five-year affordable housing plan to create or preserve 100,000 units, including 10,000 supportive units that include social services. The program would help address the affordable housing crisis, a key driver of homelessness in New York, as well as challenges around stable housing for those with mental illness and substance use disorders. Still, as with the Housing Access Voucher Program, it appears to do little to stop the immediate transfer of people from prison to shelter.
Asked about the prison-to-shelter pipeline, a spokesperson for Hochul said the state was funding a new 70-bed transitional housing pilot at the Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility run by DOCCS in Washington Heights. Transitional housing programs offer temporary shelter with accompanying services geared toward people exiting prison, including help securing employment and a permanent home. While the maximum stay at Edgecombe will be 90 days, the administration believes it will serve up to 625 people a year with average stays of 40 days. It is expected to open August 1, according to officials. Statewide, 3,400 people went directly from prison to shelter last year.
A spokesperson for Assemblymember Kenny Burgos, who chairs the Subcommittee on Reentry and Transitional Services, could not point to any policies or funding in the state budget that would provide an alternative to the release of incarcerated individuals into shelters.
Advocates say there is a need for greater reentry planning prior to release. "As soon as people are in prisons, prison officials should be helping people plan for their discharge," said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.
According to a state spokesperson, DOCCS works with individuals prior to release "to develop possible residences to submit for approval, in order to avoid a referral to the local Department of Social Services."
"Additionally, DOCCS has a Re-Entry Services Unit that networks, seeks out and investigates housing options, shares either new or existing resources, and connects with agencies with a history of working with persons with criminal justice involvement," the spokesperson said.
Service providers said parole officers often deny permanent residence with a family member or friend for a reason that may seem arbitrary, like the fact that the household has another person with a criminal record or a dog.
"That can really destabilize people and take away options that would have otherwise been viable for them,” Simone said.
There has been little legislative oversight of discharge planning, or reentry services more broadly, and none in the offing. "I am not aware of any oversight being planned at the moment," wrote Christain Barbato, Burgos' spokesperson, in an email.
At the city level, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams pointed to the proposed $171 million in his executive budget for new safe haven and stabilization beds, which are, respectively, types of shelter beds that have low barriers to entry and typically come with on-site services.
The City Council is seeking an additional $28 million in the city budget for 1,000 new beds at the city’s Justice-Impacted Supportive Housing initiative for people exiting the city jail system, which is run by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The funding would bring the total number of JISH beds to 1,500. The additional funding also has the support of Comptroller Brad Lander, according to a spokesperson.
“New Yorkers returning to their communities after being incarcerated are too often being funneled into homelessness, exacerbating the housing insecurity challenges that undermine the health of our neighborhoods and city," Speaker Adrienne Adams said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
"A past legal record can also be a continuing barrier to housing and other economic opportunities for stability that we must address to make our communities stronger and our city safer, as we seek to break this pipeline to homelessness," Speaker Adams said. She noted the proposed Clean Slate Act, a state bill that would automatically seal conviction records for non-sex-offenses after the end of a sentence and parole periods of different lengths based on the types of convictions involved. The Council passed a resolution in support of the legislation in May and it also has the backing of Mayor Adams. It would not impact housing discrimination during the period immediately following release because it goes into effect only after a set number of years post-parole.
A MOCJ program with the Exodus Transitional Community, a social service provider for people involved in the criminal legal system, has provided temporary housing in hotels for more than 800 formerly incarcerated individuals, according to a mayor's office spokesperson.
The city also has two shelters specifically for people with a criminal history coming online in the "coming months," according to a Department of Social Services spokesperson. Together they are expected to have the capacity to shelter 170 people at a time.
Like Hochul, Mayor Adams also proposed major spending on affordable housing. His executive budget includes $5 billion to NYCHA and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as part of a $22-billion, ten-year capital spending plan.
But affordable housing often comes with its own barriers, like discrimination based on source of income or criminal history.
Housing advocates are pushing for the Fair Chance for Housing Act in New York City, which would make it illegal for landlords to check the arrest or conviction records of prospective tenants. The bill was co-sponsored by more than half the City Council – including the current speaker, Adrienne Adams – last year but wasn't passed before the end of session. It has not been reintroduced in the current session.
Hochul backed a state-level Fair Chance for Housing Act but it lost the support of advocates who said exceptions added to the text rendered it toothless.
On Thursday, legislators passed a state bill that would allow formerly incarcerated people to live in public housing, the largest single stock of affordable housing in New York City. People leaving incarceration would still have to contend with NYCHA's long wait list. The bill now goes to the governor's desk.
"This bill would relieve families from hiding family members who are formerly incarcerated individuals, that would risk their public housing eligibility," reads a memo from Burgos, the legislation's sponsor.
Last year, New York City expanded the housing voucher program, known as CityPHEPS, which covers a portion of rent relative to income. The City Council called for the voucher increase to be fully funded in the fiscal year 2023 budget in its response to Mayor Adams' preliminary budget. Last week, lawyers for the nonprofit watchdog Housing Rights Initiative filed a sweeping lawsuit against 120 real estate companies alleging widespread discrimination against people using the vouchers. And there is no clear program for ensuring that people leaving prison have access to the vouchers.
After three weeks sleeping on the trains and looking for housing, the man who left Bellevue secured a different kind of voucher – for a hotel room that had been repurposed through the city's Exodus program in 2020. It has given him more stable footing as he considers his next move. "I would like to start a business one day," he said, to provide virtual services like social media and skiptracing to people in prison. It was a recent Sunday afternoon and he was sitting in a booth in the back of an uncrowded restaurant in Times Square. "Finally, at last, things are starting to come together and get better," he said.
The city's current Exodus contract goes through June of this year, according to a mayoral spokesperson. It is unclear whether it will be extended.
Note: This article was updated to reflect the passage of legislation Thursday to permit incarcerated people to live in public housing.
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette