We Can Break the Cycle of Homelessness and Criminal Justice System Involvement

What comes to mind when you think of the experience of homelessness? Is it the loss of housing? The search for an available shelter bed? The danger and the shame of sleeping on the street? What about being arrested and cuffed? Standing in a court room before a judge? Or sleeping in a jail cell?

The sad truth is that for too many people, the experience of homelessness involves police encounters, lockups, courts, or jail and prison cells as much as it does shelter beds. Some people are caught in a revolving door between the streets or shelters and jails, not to mention other institutional settings. In fact, our national data shows that the number of Americans caught on this cycle may number in the tens of thousands. Of the 11 million people detained or incarcerated in jails every year, as many as 15 percent report having been homeless. Roughly 48,000 people entering shelters every year are coming nearly directly from prisons or jails. Even many Veterans entering HUD-VASH report having recent experiences of incarceration.

While homelessness has many causes, some of which have to do with larger economic forces, it is also caused and exacerbated by the policy choices that we make in our communities and as a nation. The cycle of homelessness and criminal justice involvement is a perfect example of that.  When communities pursue policies that criminalize homelessness, when we severely punish people for minor drug possession or for assault charges related to mental health decompensation, or when we fail to adequately assist people leaving jails or prisons to obtain housing, services, and employment, we contribute to and worsen the problem of homelessness. 

Last month, at the quarterly meeting of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, our Chair, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez led a dialogue among HUD Secretary Julián Castro, DOJ Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery, OMB Director Shaun Donovan, USICH Executive Director Matthew Doherty, and other Council members to confront the many intersections between homelessness and criminal justice system involvement. Recognizing the role that Federal leadership can play in breaking this cycle, Council members discussed steps that are being taken and that can be taken to reduce criminal justice system involvement among people experiencing homelessness, both by reducing the criminalization of homelessness and the return of people from correctional settings to homelessness. Specific action areas identified include:

  • Continuing efforts to combat the criminalization of homelessness
  • Increasing the training of law enforcement around encounters of people exhibiting psychiatric symptoms
  • Increasing access to jail diversion and alternatives to incarceration
  • Expanding evidence-based housing and services solutions like permanent supportive housing for people caught on a cycle of homelessness and incarceration
  • Reducing barriers to housing, employment, and services for people with criminal histories

Council members also highlighted recent and upcoming actions, some of which were recently highlighted by President Obama during his November 2 remarks on criminal justice reform and reentry:

Over the past five years, communities have made historic strides in creating efficient engagement and housing delivery systems to end homelessness. But our efforts to end homelessness will fall short if we do not also confront and ultimately stop what some people have called the ‘trans-institutionalization’ between homelessness and incarceration.

While we cannot always control and immediately address all of the factors that contribute to homelessness, this is an area where the right thing to do is firmly within our grasp as providers, advocates, policymakers, and citizens. We call on communities to partner with us to stop the criminalization of homelessness and to break the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.


To read more about our October Council meeting, check out Executive Director Matthew Doherty's update of the meeting, including details on racial disparities in homelessness, and Policy Advisor Lindsay Knotts' overview on Federal agencies' actions to end homelessness among American Indians and Alaska Natives.