Laws Criminalizing Homelessness Have Been Spreading Rapidly Across Urban U.S.

According to a 2014 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, laws criminalizing homelessness have been spreading rapidly across urban areas of the United States. They criminalize behaviors and conduct that are often necessary for unsheltered and other homeless individuals, such as sleeping, sitting or begging in public, sleeping in vehicles and food sharing in public spaces.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

These laws make it very difficult for people experiencing homelessness to exist in the public domain. They drive individuals from the cities, at what is usually a transient, vulnerable time in their lives. Further, these policies, especially laws prohibiting public food sharing, prevent others from standing in solidarity with the homeless. This isolates those experiencing homelessness even more and prevents them from building up social connections and support. According to the National Law Center on Homeless and Policy’s 2014 report on criminalization, 9 percent of U.S. cities have passed laws banning food sharing in certain public areas. Further, the National Coalition for the Homeless has identified more than 30 cities that have or that are in the process of enacting such legislation in the past 14 months.

Researcher Randall Armster wrote:

By criminalizing homelessness and eradicating unsheltered individuals from public view, the nature of this country’s democracy is changed. The United States should allow and welcome all people to participate in public discourse and utilize public spaces. When forbidden to do this, homeless individuals are dehumanized, degraded and shown that they are unwelcome and unworthy in such a ‘democratic’ society.

Bill Briscall, communications manager of RainCity Housing in Vancouver, worked with an ad agency to create benches that folded out into temporary night shelters, in response to criminalization measures that create hostile environments for the homeless in his city.

He explained that his hopes for the project were to:

encourage conversations happening at the dinner table that may change behavior and prevent homelessness in the first place, by ensuring all of us are always living in places where we feel safe, respected and heard.

Governmental and non-governmental organizations alike are fighting against this criminalization, but their main argument is not about responsibility or morality. It is financial — that the criminalization of homelessness is not cost effective, and that jail time is far more expensive to tax payers than providing housing.

The concept of housing as a human right is largely neglected when the arguments for decriminalizing homelessness focus on the potential financial benefits rather than the suffering and hardship that could be eliminated. This emphasis must be changed.

As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty explained in its report on criminalization:

Yes, ending homelessness is cost-effective for the taxpayer… But dollars are not the only cost of homelessness; humans experience homelessness at a horrific expense to the health and well-being of themselves and their communities. When we make the case that safe and stable housing is a human right… We can tap into the passions, relationships, and experiences that cut across sectors — and budget sheets — to create new partnerships and solutions.

The United States is in dire need of a shift in discourse and in policy in order to tackle such a complex, destructive problem.

The 50-plus cities that have criminalized homelessness since 2011 include Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando, St.Petersburg, Kalamazoo, Denver, Phoenix, Honolulu and Tampa. Others are considering such cruel laws.

A “Relational Approach” Can Improve Female Prison Life and Cut Recidivism


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Research shows that relationships developed with staffers during incarceration directly impact recidivism. Yet many of today’s security practices carried out by correctional personnel re-traumatize women, thereby blocking or sabotaging any real attempt at reforming them, so they can learn how to lead productive, pro-social lives.

Women’s prison systems are moving away from gender-specific programs and toward trauma-informed ones. This is a better way to approach female offenders, since even conservative estimates are that about half the population are victims of trauma. Though “relational theory” might sound to some like “psychobabble,” it begins with professionalism, which is needed across the board, regardless of gender. Making prisons humane institutions is good for everyone, since prisons are where you go as punishment, not for punishment.

There are several simple steps to implement the relational model.The first step is to train custody staff in female offenders’ characteristics, so they have a better understanding of who they are dealing with. When staffers know a female offender’s personal history, it explains a lot about how she behaves. Individuals who have been severely traumatized are difficult to deal with on many levels, but when you know that their behavior is a learned response for self-preservation, you can begin to make operational changes.

For example, instead of strip-searching women, prisons can utilize full-body scans like those used in airports, and prisoner-visiting programs could include child-friendly play spaces for mother and child to interact in a developmentally-appropriate manner. In this way, the individual’s humanity is largely kept intact, while the prison’s security needs are met.

At the most basic level, one way to implement the relational method is through conversation. It might sound simple, but if staffers take an interest in the women’s personal lives by asking questions about their children or loved ones, then they can begin to help the healing process. Staffers should demonstrate care and interest, recognizing that when a woman is incarcerated, her whole family is impacted.

Another practical way staffers can contribute to the psychological wellness of inmates is to provide choices for women, where possible. Within the prison system, there are many programs for inmates to participate in. In the relational model, staffers would rephrase “Why aren’t you motivated?” as “What motivates you?” Imagine how empowering that can be in the typical prison environment which deprives you of so many freedoms and choices—such as when to get up, what to wear, what to eat and when to make phone calls.

While the dynamic between correctional officers and inmates can be challenging, feeling respected while inside the prison can go a long way for these women and contribute to their ability to make positive changes on the outside.

A relational approach would make for a kinder, gentler prison, which does not mean coddling criminals or being lax about security. It would restore a woman’s self-esteem, not re-traumatize her, and provide at least a fighting chance for her to learn how to create healthy, safe relationships with others.

The widespread popularity of Orange Is the New Black is undeniable, as is the soaring population of female inmates and the need for reform in how their unique needs are met.

While the show exaggerates some of the illegal activities that happen in a prison, it accurately depicts how security personnel can exacerbate the problems that led to incarceration in the first place, thereby increasing the rate of recidivism rather than of recovery.

The narrative is fascinating from a social sciences standpoint because of the bonds between the characters. From Piper to Red to Gloria, they are all searching for ways to recover from trauma or psychological impediments while simultaneously learning to trust (or mistrust) security personnel. This highlights a key component in rehabilitation: building relationships.

More women are serving time in the US than ever before, and incarceration in the women’s prison system is growing at a rate faster than it is in the men’s. From 1980 to 2010, the number of female prisoners exploded, from 15,118 to 112,797. From 2010 to 2013 the population grew another 10.9 percent.

Many of the women in prison today are victims themselves. Research tells us that the following factors are often closely correlated with the incarceration of female offenders: sexual abuse, physical abuse, poverty, substance abuse and mental health issues. As such, women’s prison systems and their security personnel need to pay particular attention to helping inmates build positive relationships while in prison (implementing a relational model).

When looking at the bigger picture of America’s accelerating incarceration rate, additional factors come into play, such as higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, ongoing issues of racism and failed attempts to combat the war on drugs.

However, many prisons are failing to help with rehabilitation and instead exacerbate the problem by not building their systems around the complications of their demographics. To begin fixing many of the problems within the female prison system, it’s essential to first understand its demographics and the reasons why inmates were incarcerated in the first place.

According to The Sentencing Project:

Women are more likely to be in prison for drug and property offenses, while men are more likely to be in prison for violent offenses.

Women also are often in relationships with men who commit violent crimes and many times are incarcerated as accomplices. They are often young, single mothers who ran away from home as children to avoid abuse. Many reject positive relationships while seeking out negative ones. This knowledge should lead security personnel to understand that their interaction with the inmates will be dramatically influenced by previous trauma and psychological harm. This is why it’s so important for officers to be trained properly.

Three Juvenile Justice Bills Moving in Florida House

The Florida House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee just Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Timepassed three juvenile justice-related bills, one essentially expanding Florida’s civil citation program, one expunging a juvenile’s record at 21 if there are no further infractions and one holding the miscreant’s parents responsible for financial damage, if they can afford to pay.

It allows law enforcement to have the discretion to issue civil citations to a juvenile who admits to a misdemeanor, rather than sending them to prison.

Monica McIntyre from Daytona Beach backs the citations bill:

I am a parent of a son who was arrested last year for stealing $40 worth of cards out of a store. Last night, I googled his name, and his mug shot still shows. So, this is not excusing their behavior, but this is just allowing them to move forward .

Fred Bergeron representing Prince of Peace Catholic Church brought up the example of a five year-old special-needs child he heard about last year who now has a record:

She slapped the Kleenex out of a teacher’s hand, and although she wasn’t handcuffed, our school resource officer did file the paperwork, and now she has a misdemeanor for battery on her criminal record. She is now going to be branded a criminal for the rest of her life. She will face barriers to getting employment and getting college scholarships.

Still, while the Florida Retail Federation supports the premise of the bill, its General Counsel expressed concerns about limiting the number of citations to three—as opposed to an unlimited amount as the bill currently allows for.

The bill’s sponsors are also expected to look into including a civil citation database that all law enforcement can have access to.

Another measure that passed has been filed for the past several years that and garnered support in the House but not in the Senate, but the author believes it has a chance this year as it’s starting to move in that chamber.

Rep. Dane Eagle of Cape Coral explains the reason for his bill:

A juvenile had broken into one of my constituent’s home and caused a significant amount of damages. He was tried and convicted. The judge tried to order restitution on the juvenile, but he was unable to pay. Due to a loophole in the law, the parents were not held reasonable. At the end of the day, through no fault of her own, the victim was stuck with the bill.

Eagle’s measure expands the court authority to make those kind of calls:

It would apply strict restitution, or strict liability upon the parents of the juvenile committing the crime. There are instances where the judge is able to take into account the parent’s financial situation. If it’s up to their purview, they’d be able to ask for payment plans or it could be community service could be done in lieu of financial payment.

The measure passed the committee unanimously, as did another measure expunging the criminal records of minors by the time they turn 21 if they’re not classified as serious or habitual offenders.

Rep. Chris Latvala of Clearwater, the bill’s main sponsor, explained:

This issue was actually brought to my attention as a result of a case in my district of a young lady who is now 27 or 28 years old who was a 16-year-old foster kid at the time that she threw an egg out the window, got charged with a felony, didn’t have good legal representation and pled guilty to a felony, which has followed her throughout her life.

Latvala promised to look into whether there’s enough money in the budget to allow juveniles in the foster care system to be eligible for fee waivers in the expungement of their records.

Alliance to End Homelesness in Suburban Cook Co. IL Has Multiple Approaches in 2014-2017 Strategic Plan

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

The Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County (the Alliance)  strives to eliminate homelessness in suburban Cook County, Illinois.  An extremely large geography with a complicated web of governments, suburban  Cook County is home to over 2.5 million people across 573 square miles and
includes approximately 130 municipalities and 30 township governments.  Within this complex context, the Alliance’s role is to articulate the best possible  system to address homelessness, address weaknesses in the present system,  and marshal the resources necessary to move toward collaborative goals.

The Alliance was created as part of the Obama Administration’s 2010 “Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.”

In 2013, the homeless system in suburban Cook County served over 3,300 people. On any given night, approximately 1,200 people were either in
transitional housing, in a shelter, or living on the street. While over 70 percent
of people who experience homelessness in suburban Cook County in a year
are single individuals, a growing number are in families—951 people were
homeless with their families in 2013.5 By a broader measure, there were 5,704  school children in suburban Cook County considered homeless or doubled-up in the 2012-2013 school year—a 38 percent increase from the prior school year. If all people in suburban Cook County who are residing in “doubled-up” living situations (e.g., living with relatives or friends typically temporarily) were  considered homeless, the number of homeless would be far higher.

Nearly 13% of the known homeless population in suburban Cook County
are considered chronically homeless, i.e. homeless for an extended period of time or has cycled in and out of homelessness repeatedly. Over 11% are veterans, and over 10% are leaving domestic violence situations. A substantial share have a disability, such as substance use (17%) or a mental illness (21%). When the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in the county were surveyed, nearly half reported having spent time in a jail or prison in the past.

Certain economic situations represent risk factors for homelessness and
may put additional pressures on the suburban Cook County homeless system
moving forward. For example, being extremely poor—having income below
half the poverty line, which translates to less than $9,000 a year for a family of three—puts people at risk for homelessness since there is so very little money to pay for rent, let alone for other basic needs. There are over 112,000 people in extreme poverty in suburban Cook County, representing 4.5% of the  population.

Rents are relatively high in suburban Cook County, with a median rent of
$943. Almost 62,000 renter households are paying over 50% of their
income toward rent.

The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009 amends and reauthorizes the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides approximately $11 million to suburban Cook County annually—the single largest source of funding for its homeless system.

Since the Alliance was founded, Suburban Cook County has expanded permanent supportive housing by 400% by creating new programs, converting some existing transitional programs into permanent housing, and through the addition of 350 HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers. The 979 permanent supportive housing (PSH) beds in January 2014 represent over five times the 190 PSH beds available in January 2005 and they also represent a 78% increase in just the three years since January 2011. From January 2008 to January 2014 the number of chronic homeless persons in the area dropped from 256 to 97.

The Alliance joined the national 100,000 Homes Campaign in July 2012. The campaign focuses on creating a by-name registry of people considered to be the most vulnerable, long-term homeless in the community and then committing to place them into permanent housing. Suburban Cook County’s 150 Homes Team formed as a local chapter of the 100,000 Homes Campaign to engage these individuals and place them into housing. The team set an initial goal of housing 150 individuals in two years and ending chronic homelessness in the area by the end of 2015.

Housing is the cornerstone of the Alliance’s efforts to end homelessness. The Alliance is committed to creating a variety of housing interventions. Rapid re-housing, short to medium term rental assistance with limited services, is the newest player in terms of interventions on the housing continuum targeted at people experiencing homelessness. While it has many features similar to transitional housing, in rapid re-housing the assistance is temporary but the housing is meant to be permanent. The rapid re-housing programs in suburban Cook County are fairly nascent. The Alliance sees rapid re-housing as a key tool to shorten the duration of homelessness, so it will focus on the following goals:

  1. Increase rapid re-housing capacity to 275 beds to meet the need in suburban Cook County;
  2. Ensure that rapid re-housing targets populations with low-to- moderate service needs; and
  3. Develop standards and procedures for rapid re-housing.

Permanent supportive housing is broadly understood to effectively end homelessness for those with disabilities, especially chronically homeless individuals and families. The Alliance plans to a) ensure that permanent supportive housing targets populations with intensive service needs, who experience long-term homelessness, are vulnerable, and are the hardest to house; b) increase the amount of permanent supportive housing available in suburban Cook County to 1,307 beds by January 2018 and c) build on success of 150 Homes Team to continue to quickly house 18 of the most vulnerable homeless per month.

Having an adequate supply of affordable housing is essential for both preventing homelessness and ending homelessness. The Housing Authority of Cook County recently implemented a homeless preference in both public housing and voucher wait lists, and new vouchers are an emerging opportunity to increase access for people in the homeless system to affordable housing in suburban Cook County.

Street outreach is directed toward finding people experiencing homelessness who might not use shelter or services. It includes building relationships, checking on and monitoring clients’ welfare, assessing vulnerability, linking to services and providing follow-up case management to ensure successful linkage to services.

Homelessness prevention activities include short- or medium-term financial assistance and services as well as tenant and legal services. In addition it includes systems prevention efforts with institutions that may discharge people without stable housing lined up. A newly emerging area of prevention work is identifying the situations that make a person most likely to become homeless and intentionally targeting households with those situations.

The Alliance, largely through the work of a new Alliance Employment Committee, will focus on the following employment goals:

  1. Increase awareness about existing employment-related resources;
  2. Develop provider knowledge and skills in best practices in employment programs for people experiencing homelessness;
  3. Make employment an integral part of the suburban Cook homeless system; and
  4. Promote changes in government policies to support employment programs and policies for people experiencing homelessness


The Affordable Care Act provides for a Medicaid expansion to nearly all individuals with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level and includes new requirements for states to significantly streamline Medicaid enrollment processes. Given their low incomes and high uninsured rate, individuals experiencing homelessness could significantly benefit from this coverage expansion. However, it will be important to address the barriers they face to enrolling in coverage and accessing needed care. In addition, Medicaid funds may be available to support some services for people experiencing homelessness in new ways. The Alliance, largely through the work of providers and the three regional homeless councils, will focus on the following health care goals:

  1. Enroll all people in the suburban Cook County homeless system into Medicaid or other health insurance;
  2. Equip people experiencing homelessness in suburban Cook County to effectively use insurance and the health care system; and
  3. Integrate homeless and health care systems in a systemic way.





Attendance Mysteriously Declining at Acclaimed NY Prison Nursery Program


Bedford Hills Correcctional Facility for Women

Bedford Hills Correcctional Facility for Women

The nursery at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester, NY allows inmates to keep their newborns with them behind bars for up to 18 months. The nursery has also served as a model for programs in 10 other states.

One study showed that 33% of moms who’d been separated from their babies wound up back in prison, compared to the fewer than 10% of them who were able to keep their babies and didn’t return to prison. The cost for each baby is roughly $24,000 per year, but that’s cheaper than the $30,000 per year that it costs if a mom, who didn’t receive any support, ends up back in jail–plus the high costs of foster care.

In October 2014, The New York World first reported on dwindling use at the state nursery and a similar city-operated program at the Rikers Island jail. Newly released records confirm that nursery usage at Bedford Hills has declined by 55% in the past seven years, despite research from academics which revealed that participation in the program can significantly cut recidivism. The overall female prison population declined by 16% over that time period.

In the late 1990s, an average of nearly 100 inmates participated in the state nursery program at Bedford Hills annually and at the now defunct nursery at neighboring Taconic Correctional Facility. By 2014, that figure dropped to 22.

Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) officials have still not provided responses to basic questions such as how many inmates were accepted or denied admission into the state’s nursery program, or how many inmates were removed from the program for punitive reasons. Some records refer to inmates being discharged from the nursery for “disciplinary sanctions,” but none offered a running tally of how many times this occurred or what kinds of infractions were committed.

One June 2014 report states that three inmates were removed from the Bedford Hills nursery for unspecified disciplinary reasons and makes no note of what ultimately happened to their infants. The same report states that the nursery, which is equipped for 27 mother-baby pairs, had only 11 participants at the end of that quarter.

The department has still not provided a comprehensive figure for how many inmates appealed their denials and how many of those appeals were ultimately successful, or how long the agency took to process applications. Both of those issues arose in lawsuits filed in court to contest inmates’ rejections to participate in the nursery program.

While Taylor Vogt, a DOCCS spokeswoman, did not provide comment specifically on the nursery’s population decline or the nature of denials, she wrote, “the number of admissions is reflective of the number of women who are pregnant at the facility” and that “guidelines dictate who is admitted.”

State law mandates women accepted into the program only be physically fit and that participation be in the best interests of the child, but correction officials have typically exercised more discretion based on subjective factors.

A page from a prison manual outlines additional criteria such as an inmate’s past parenting history, “the number of opportunities she has had to better her situation, and her expressed attitudes toward her unborn child.”

A long sentence and any disciplinary sanctions while incarcerated can also lead to denials and the manual notes that officials will place “great scrutiny” on “arson, assault and child abuse” as well as “prior incarceration with poor adjustment.”

Records show the agency granted physical access to the nursery to six different media outlets in 2013 alone, resulting largely in positive stories. Among them was ABC’s “Nightline,” which featured interviews with nursery mothers inside the facility.

The vast majority of the 2000 or so inmates who give birth in American prisons are separated from their babies shortly after birth. Bedford is one of the handful of women’s prisons that allow some incarcerated moms to keep their newborns with them, in some cases until the babies are a year and a half old.

Inmate Jacqueline McDougall, 26, told “Nightline”:

I think seeing my son Max’s little face every day and knowing that I have to take care of him is definitely going to be a big incentive for me. I’ve had time to clean up my act and really see where I was headed. It wasn’t in a good direction. At the end of it all now, I kind of think this saved my life.

No one convicted of violent crimes, arson or crimes involving children are allowed into Bedford’s program. McDougall landed herself in prison after she got caught stealing silverware. She said she needed the money to buy drugs, including prescription pills and cocaine. By the time she was sent to prison, McDougall said she was clean, but also pregnant.

Dr. Janet Stockheim, a pediatrician who comes every two weeks to check up on the babies in the prison said it can benefit a baby to be raised behind bars:

The babies aren’t aware. They get excellent care. They are very well-bonded to the mother. Bonding gives a baby trust in the world that they will be taken care of. The babies do better here than they would on the outside with some of these mothers.

Max and his mother have never spent a full day apart. Aside from her chores in the prison block, McDougall is a full-time single parent, bathing, diapering, and nursing, which heightens bonding for both mother and baby. The mothers also get parenting classes.



“Face Forward” Grants Offers Training and Credentials to Help Court-involved Youth Overcome Barriers to Success

Youth who have been in the juvenile justice system often face numerous challenges as they attempt to enter the workforce and become productive citizens. The stigma that a juvenile record carries can close doors before they ever open. All too often, these hurdles continue into adulthood and become overwhelming barriers that sustain a cycle of crime and incarceration.

To stop the cycle before it starts, the U.S. Department of Labor launched the “Face Forward” initiative designed to help court-involved youth overcome barriers early on and provide occupational training and credentials that will help them open the door to career success.

The goal of the Face Forward program aligns closely with President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative which seeks to close opportunity gaps still faced by too many young people and often by boys and young men of color.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said:

We all succeed when we all succeed, and that’s what the Face Forward program is all about. With these grants, we can create a brighter future for these youth, build safer communities and strengthen our economy as a whole.

This year is the third round of the Face Forward grant initiative which uses the most promising workforce and juvenile justice strategies available. The grants also build on the department’s commitment to fund sustainable programs through the career pathways initiative, which better coordinates education and training services to enable workers to attain industry-recognized credentials and find jobs.

Grantees are expected to provide a range of services that include case management, mentoring, education and training services. Funded programs will also help to eliminate the stigma of a juvenile record by offering services to seal juvenile records and providing opportunities to handle delinquency complaints outside of the juvenile justice system.

In 2015, the department plans to award four grants of $5 million each to intermediary organizations who will then work with local service providers in no less than three communities across no less than two states. The remaining funds will be awarded to approximately 10 community organization for up to $1.05 million each. Preference will be given to grantees that target communities with high-poverty and high-crime rates.

Grantees will provide services to youth between the ages of 14-to-24 that have been involved in the juvenile justice system, but never convicted in the adult criminal system.

In 2013 DOL awarded more than $26 million in grants to 28 community organizations to help juveniles develop skills, enter the workforce and overcome the stigma of their juvenile records.

Because juvenile arrests can become a major barrier to inclusion  and advancement in the workforce, grantees  will collaborate with nonprofit legal services providers to assist in expunging  the court records of juvenile offenders and/or provide diversion programs, as  designated by the juvenile justice system. Grantees will also offer youth mentoring services, education and training leading to industry-recognized  credentials and post-program support and follow-up services.

Eligible juvenile offenders must reside in the geographic area to be served; have never been involved  with the adult federal, state or local criminal justice systems; have never  been convicted of a sex-related offense other than prostitution; and be currently  involved or have been involved in the juvenile justice system, or be candidates  for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion programs.

Grants were awarded through a competitive process open  to any nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status, unit of state or  local government, or any Indian and Native American entity eligible for grants  under Workforce Investment Act Section 166 in areas with high poverty and crime rates that met the requirements of the solicitation.

The grants will operate for  a period of 39 months, which include six months of planning, 24 months of  operation, and a minimum of nine months of post-program support and follow-up  services for each participant.

Communities served by the frogram include New York, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis,

$63.6 Million Federal Grant Helps Every State Deal With Problems of Student Homelessness

Milwaukee Public Schools has employed a homeless kidsstudent homeless coordinator since 1987, although they mostly worked with shelters until the 2002 McKinney-Vento Act. During the 2011 fiscal year, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant allocated $63.6 million across the country, helping every state address the problems associated with student homelessness. In the Milwaukee School District, the McKinney-Vento grant, along with Title I funding, support three homeless coordinators, with the requirement that school districts remove all barriers to the educational process for homeless children and reach out to more homeless kids – including those who have sleeping arrangements that are not permanent or regular.

According to a 2009 study, 40% of Milwaukee children are poor. In the Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in Wisconsin with an enrollment of 80,000 students, 80% qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. More than 2,500 of the students have been identified as homeless.

Despite these figures, the school district has taken strides towards improving attendance rates and increasing outreach efforts to families and community agencies, and last year the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth recognized Milwaukee Public Schools for its outstanding school-based program in homeless education, in which each principal appoints someone in the school who identifies homeless families who are then enrolled in a database.

Catherine Klein, one of the homeless coordinators with the school district who oversees the programs of 180 schools, says:

We encourage homeless contacts to keep an eye on students so they can refer them to programs. To ensure that all school staff members know about it, we train homeless contacts every year. Teachers usually know the children are homeless and give them extra time or a place to do homework projects in the classroom.

The program provides services including free lunch, transportation, access to school supplies and access to all other school programs like special education and tutoring. The coordinators also provide community resource guides to families, showing them how to obtain low cost healthcare, dental care, locations of shelters, food pantries and instructions on how to navigate the social service system.

Klein has seen the number of families served increase 15-20% every year – partly due to school personnel being more aware of the program, but also the economics of the area. For the past two years the program has seen more involvement with organizations and agencies that give material donations to the district.

Lee Wackman is chairman of HL Palmer Masonic Angel Fund, which provides assistance to children in need, as requested from school principals. Wackman chartered the foundation in Milwaukee about four years ago. One day last winter, he went to an elementary school where he saw four children arrive with no coats, and after going from class to class, learned that 49 students came to school without jackets. Within 24 hours, the Angel Fund acquired and brought in jackets for all of them.

In addition to clothing, the foundation delivers 500 to 1,000 hygiene kits at a time to schools, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant and a laundry bag with a note that says “touched by an angel.”

Wackman knew a 16-year-old student whose counselor from school called saying he had been wearing the same clothes for three months. He took him to a department store to buy some nice casual clothing for school. The student told Wackman he had been living in a friend’s basement and had wanted a Christmas for the past two years. The boy said, “You just gave me a Christmas.”

15,000 Elderly Female Prisoners Serve Long Sentences, Pose Minimal Public Risk

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

According to the ACLU’s 2012 report: At America’s Expense: Mass Incarcerarion of the Elderly, there are 246,600 aging prisoners (50 and older) nationwide. The four jurisdictions with the highest actual number of elderly prisoners are California (27,680), Texas (27,455), Florida (17,980) and the federal prison system (25,160). These four jurisdictions comprise 43% of the nation’s aging prisoners. About 15,000 of these elderly prisoneres are women.

The lack of appropriate healthcare and access to healthy living prior to incarceration, added to the heavy stresses of life behind bars, accelerate the aging process of prisoners so that they are actually physically older than average individuals.The elderly prisoner population increased, on average, by 145% between 1997 and 2007 in 16 southern states—much higher than the total prison population growth rate in those states. White prisoners comprise the largest segment of aging prisoners (42% but Black (33%) and Hispanic (15%) aging prisoners are overrepresented.

The elderly prison population is increasingly comprised of individuals sentenced to
prison for long periods of time, (20 years or more) and they increasingly remain in prison into old age. In 1979, only 2% of aging prisoners fell into this category nationwide, but data collected from jurisdictions shows that this percentage is far higher now. For example, the percentage of aging prisoners now is 15% in Mississippi and 19% in Ohio.

Many individuals who would have been sentenced to shorter periods of incarceration for repeat crimes before 1979 are now caught in the net of later-enacted habitual offender laws and given punishments of 20 years or more. The majority of aging prisoners are incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

In Texas, 65% of aging prisoners are in for nonviolent drug crimes, property crimes and other nonviolent crimes. In North Carolina, 26% of prisoners age 50 and older are in prison under habitual offender laws or for drug crimes. Another 14% are in prison for fraud, larceny, burglary, breaking and entering and traffic and public order violations.

The percentage of aging prisoners first imprisoned after they turned 50 is declining. In 1979, 41% of aging prisoners fit into this category nationwide. But in Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire, this percentage dropped to 4-8% in 2012.

Research has conclusively shown that by age 50 most people have significantly outlived the years in which they are most likely to commit crimes. For example, arrest rates drop to just over 2% at age 50 and are almost 0% at age 65. There is also overwhelming evidence that prisoners 50 and older are far less likely to return to prison for new crimes than their younger cohorts. For example, only 7% of New York state prisoners released at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions, and this number was 4% for prisoners released at age 65 and older. In Virginia, only 1.3% of prisoners age 55 and older returned to prison for a new conviction.

It costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older, so states will save, on average, $66,294 per year per released aging prisoner.

To address unnecessary overcrowding of elderly prisoners, states should grant conditional release to those who pose little public safety risk. States should also utilize and expand medical parole. To accommplish these reforms, states should increase the transparency and accountability of parole boards. Moreover, Congress should reauthorize and expand the provision of the Second Chance Act that authorizes a federal aging prisoner-release program.

To prevent prisons from unnecessarily filling up with aging prisoners, lawmakers should rethink this country’s harsh and disproportionate sentencing regime. The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality unnecessarily incarcerates millions of people for extraordinarily long periods of time—well into old age, and sometimes until they die.

States and the federal government should reintroduce proportionality into sentences for crimes and should: repeal strict, inflexible and often irrational mandatory minimums laws that require the automatic imposition of brutally long and disproportionate prison sentences and prevent individualized sentencing. These laws prevent judges from tailoring the punishment to the individual circumstances of the case, the defendant and the seriousness of the offense.


Study Finds Juvenile Offenders Do Better Close To Home

Juvenile criminal offenders in Texas who are placed

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

under county supervision, close to home, are less likely to be rearrested than those placed in state-run correctional facilities, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. The study “Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms” found in 2010 that 43.5% of youth released from state-run incarceration were reincarcerated within three years, versus only 2.4% after three years who were disposed to deferred prosecution. 

In 2007, after revelations of abuse in state-run secure juvenile correctional facilities, lawmakers prohibited youth who committed misdemeanors from confinement in secure facilities and lowered the age of the states’ jurisdiction over youth from 21 to 19, dramatically reducing the number of youth in confinement. Policymakers later established a grant program that gave financial incentives to counties to decrease the rate of confinement.

The researchers say the reforms resulted in a decrease of the average daily juvenile population in secure confinement — from 3,000-3,500 to about 1,000. The drop in population allowed for the closing of many facilities, saving the state millions of dollars.

Researchers also learned that when juvenile offenders aren’t confined to secure facilities, and are instead under community supervision — such as juvenile probation, drug treatment programs, counseling or “boot camps” — recidivism rates decline.

Miner Marchbanks III of the Public Policy Research Institute  at Texas A&M, co-author of the study, said:

One would think that if you take away this major punishment of confinement, crime is going to go up, but in fact, that’s not what happened. Recidivism doesn’t go up just from taking confinement away.

According to the study, youth incarcerated in state-run facilities are 21 percent more likely to be rearrested, and they are three times for more likely to have committed a felony if they are rearrested.

Since there can be hundreds of community programs designed to help deter juvenile crime, the researchers categorized the programs as either skills-based (such as physical activities programs), treatment-based (such as counseling or drug treatment) or surveillance-based (such as probation requiring check-ins). When analyzing the data, the researchers controlled for 41 variables including race, ethnicity and gender, gang affiliation, living situation, prior offenses, physical abuse and school outcomes.

The researchers believe juveniles under county supervision are less likely to be rearrested due to a number of factors, one being continuing contact with family members.

Austin Clemens, the other study co-author, says:

Many of these secure correctional facilities are located far away from home, and due to time and financial constraints, family members might have been unable to visit very often. So this type of isolation from family could have had a negative effect.

The researchers found a tremendous amount of randomness in courts deciding who went to state confinement and who went under county supervision. “When you are incarcerating juveniles with relatively minor offenses right alongside those who have committed more serious crimes, you may be exposing them to negative influences,” Marchbanks says. “Then there’s the issue of perceived fairness; if your friend gets off with a treatment program but you’re sent to a secure facility 500 miles away, that has to have some sort of ‘the system is against me’ effect.”

Keeping offenders in the community may also be more beneficial because local probation officers may know the children and the community better than a corrections officer hundreds of miles away at a state-run facility.

The researchers point to several standout Texas counties whose rates of recidivism since the reforms were enacted are notably low: El Paso, Dallas and Cameron. And they add that Tarrant County (Ft. Worth), which fell into the “worse-than-expected category,” went about instituting reforms immediately upon this revelation.

Marchbanks said of Tarrant Co.:

They showed extraordinary leadership. Instead of ignoring the results or being defensive, they went straight to work for improvement.



Changes at Eureka, CA’s Multiple Assistance Center Could End Homelessness in Humboldt County

Humboldt County in Northern California will be redesigning its transitional housing program for families into a model that emphasizes Housing First and rapid re-housing, although community fears and pushback have come as a result of this big change. Although a comprehensive, effective safety net recognizes a community’s diverse needs and offers a full circle of care, which includes activities like transitional housing, nationally we are working with limited resources, and when doing so, it is important to focus those resources toward approaches that are actually reducing homeless numbers and doing so in the most cost-effective way possible.

Transitional housing may be an appropriate intervention for some individuals and families experiencing homelessness, but for many, the same outcomes can be achieved through rapid re-housing, and at a significantly lower cost. Transitional housing is one of the most expensive interventions for homelessness. It also makes the assumption that some people are not ready for housing, but we’re all ready for housing. Shelter is a basic need, and once people have permanent housing, it allows them to lower their daily level of stress, which can in turn have positive effects on other issues such as mental health, substance abuse, employment, and education. Effective rapid re-housing programs focus on the housing first, and then follow-up with other services that clients want or need. It empowers clients to make these decisions on their own, to take their path toward self-sufficiency one step at a time.

Humboldt County needs to focus on rapidly re-housing the families at the MAC [Multiple Assistance Center] and targeting remaining funds to Housing First programs for its chronically homeless population. This approach will not only save money but also allow them to put their compassionate Humboldt hearts into action. Humboldt County is unique, and change is hard, but the area’s denizen’s need to imagine little Humboldt County joining the ranks of Salt Lake City, Phoenix and New Orleans in ending chronic homelessness.The Multiple Assistance Center, better known as “the MAC,” is a 100-bed complex currently operates as a transitional housing facility with on-site programs aimed at helping the families who live there overcome the challenges of homelessness.

Denise Mattson who has been living with her husband and their baby at the MAC, says:

We recently had a workshop about housing, and they taught us about credit reports, how you can look and see what prevents us from getting housing — like if you have a water bill that needs to be paid off. I have also taken life skills courses, learning about how to find employment, fill out housing applications and even reduce stress. And my husband has been attending a fathership group.

This program works. It puts more people into housing. It’s the first program I’ve seen that actually works.

Eureka’s MAC

The facility is operated by the nonprofit Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA) in partnership with the County of Humboldt and the City of Eureka, which owns the property. These agencies, led primarily by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, recently decided to make some dramatic changes, repurposing the MAC building. Starting this summer the facility will no longer house or provide services to families; instead it will be used as an intake facility geared toward helping the county’s chronically homeless individual men.

Families living at the MAC, who in recent years have been given as long as 18 months to get their lives back on track before moving out, were notified they’d have to leave no later than June 30. The county and RCAA are working to get each family placed into more permanent housing, with funding for support services following them into the community.

Phillip Crandall, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, says:

I want to reassure everyone that the county is not in the business of increasing homelessness, and we’re certainly not going to be throwing children and families out into the streets. We would not close the MAC if we didn’t have an alternative plan for the families.

That alternative plan focuses on getting homeless individuals and families placed into permanent housing as quickly as possible, as opposed to the transitional housing approach embodied by the MAC.

Crandall and other officials say this shift in approach was motivated by two main factors: evidence and funding. In recent years, government agencies that deal with chronic homelessness — particularly the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — have themselves shifted gears, putting less focus on transitional programs like the MAC and more on “housing first” approaches, including rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.

Ed Cabrera, a San Francisco-based spokesman for HUD, said that the old-school model for addressing homelessness focused on “housing the most housing- ready”–the people who could show up for meetings and fill out applications.  But HUD is now encouraging local communities to take more strategic approaches in hopes of reaching “the most visible, the most vulnerable — the chronically homeless.”

In Eureka these days the most visible homeless people are usually men, often with addiction and/or mental health problems. This is the community that RCAA and the county hope to serve better by turning the MAC building into an intake facility where these men can stay for roughly 30 to 60 days while a long-term plan is developed for their housing and services.

Eureka has arguably been the ugliest and most volatile battleground in the fight to end homelessness locally, with regular raids on homeless camps, roundabout enforcement efforts like the a shopping-cart ordinance and escalating community vitriol which was partially (and illogically) sparked by the New Year’s Day murder of father Eric Freed.

With public outcry over homelessness reaching a fever pitch, the city commissioned a homelessness policy paper from a Sacramento consulting firm called Focus Strategies. That paper, released last fall, encouraged a new approach:

Focus Strategies strongly advises the City of Eureka not to pursue approaches directed at better managing the existing problems, such as by increasing the frequency of police sweeps or creating a legalized camping area or ‘tent city.’ All available evidence shows that providing homeless people with housing, without making participation in other services a pre-condition, is the most effective way to reduce homelessness.

The latest messaging and data suggest so. According to the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, housing first programs “allow people with one or more serious disabling conditions to stabilize their housing and address underlying conditions that often have gone untreated for many years.”

The philosophy goes all the way to the top of U.S. government. President Obama helped codify the strategic shift during his first year in office by signing the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Acct of 2009. And when federal agencies adjust positions, nonprofit grant funders tend to follow suit. Sure enough, the shift in strategies has been trickling down to local communities around the country.