Finding housing is the biggest challenge formerly incarcerated individuals face alongside securing employment, obtaining medical care and avoiding substance abuse. Multifaceted challenges create barriers for returning citizens to obtaining gainful employment and stable housing, leading to recidivism and re-incarceration. While housing is a source of necessary shelter and residential stability, it can also serve as a foundation for successful reentry and reintegration for released adults. Providing wrap-around services—addressing basic needs including housing and employment as well as offering mentoring and peer support to navigate challenges that may arise on a personal, legal, and family level—are significant in reducing recidivism and re-incarceration.
In providing a wide array of culturally competent and relevant programs to meet the needs of men who are leaving jail or prison, Nehemiah and its reentry staff manage three residential buildings throughout the greater Madison area, all being associated with the Reentry Housing Program. Each program participant signs their own lease and receives an individual room, but common spaces are shared within each apartment. While participating in the Reentry Housing Program, these men must follow sober living rules and partake in the program’s services including mentoring and peer support. Nehemiah and its reentry staff also require that these men are working when they apply for the housing program.
According to Reentry Housing Coordinator Rebecca Barber, the program serves to provide a temporary situation, the beginning period of the transition and readjustment of these formerly incarcerated individuals working to become self-sufficient in society. Ideally, participants of the program reside in the housing program for three to three and a half years. In their time of residence with Nehemiah, these men find themselves with greater independence compared to living in other accommodating situations because there is no one on staff at the residences.
This sense of independence is tied to measurable and progressive steps including working towards building credit, a career and homeownership for rental history. For Nehemiah to successfully provide formerly incarcerated individuals the resources necessary to work towards these progressive steps requires great support from the community.
Private housing is beyond reach for many formerly incarcerated individuals due to affordability. Given the short supply of affordable housing, landlords can afford to deny housing to applicants with criminal records. Landlords willing to collaborate with Nehemiah and its reentry housing staff would help to secure housing. Nehemiah can help landlords learn and navigate supporting formerly incarcerated residents to build a better community.
Additionally, formerly incarcerated people face structural barriers to securing employment. Employment helps formerly incarcerated people gain economic stability after release and reduces the likelihood that they return to prison, promoting greater public safety to the benefit of everyone. But despite the overwhelming benefits of employment, people who have been to prison are largely shut out of the labor market. Formerly incarcerated people are almost five times more likely to be unemployed compared to the general public, and many who are employed are restricted to insecure jobs. There is a great need for employers who are willing to work with those who have fewer opportunities but are ready to work hard for a stable and livable wage. Nehemiah has a solid track record in partnering with local businesses to connect formerly incarcerated individuals to the workforce. Considering the current worker shortage, many employers could find great success in working with Nehemiah’s Reentry Housing Program’s participants who are ready and willing to work hard.
In terms of internal processes, volunteers and funding help to expand the program’s reach and extent of the impact. “A lot of times in service, it doesn’t matter what goods and services you are providing if you cannot provide people,” Barber says. The residential spaces require staff to move in and set up a living space that is inviting to its residents. Donations of lightly used or new furniture are greatly appreciated. The Nehemiah reentry staff wants “the men to have a dignified space.” There is also a need for maintenance and improvements to the building, referring to a maintenance person who would be able to work between the three addresses. There is a lot of emphasis put on habitat by the reentry staff because Nehemiah believes we naturally react to our environment with regard to our overall well-being.
It is difficult to ignore the effects of COVID-19 and isolation relating to the capabilities of the Reentry Housing Program. The pandemic is making the need for technological equality more apparent, yet formerly incarcerated individuals often suffer because they cannot adjust to modern technology. The pandemic is further marginalizing a group that is already struggling as technology is required for many essential activities in the reentry process such as conducting job searches and finding employment. There is a vital need for the donation of used devices and courses to help participants of the program learn how to navigate an increasingly technology-dependent world.
Securing stable housing is crucial to successful reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals. By working to reduce the barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from accessing stable housing, advocates can reduce recidivism
and improve public safety and community wellbeing. The Nehemiah Reentry Housing Program and its services increase the likelihood that participants will transition successfully and become contributing members of our community. In order to serve more individuals through Nehemiah’s Reentry Housing Program, we will have to innovate together as a community through the collaborative methods mentioned above.
This article was researched and written by Kamika Patel in collaboration with the work of Rebecca Barber, Nehemiah Re-Entry Housing Program Coordinator