Explainer: Creating Housing Opportunities for People with Complex Health Needs Leaving Incarceration

September 8, 2022

With an affordable housing crisis across the U.S., it is increasingly critical for jurisdictions to expand their housing supply to meet community needs. However, local leaders often grapple with the question of who is prioritized in these expansion efforts as they develop their housing strategies.

This is for a number of reasons. For starters, there is a compelling argument to be made for why many different populations need more housing opportunities, making it difficult to prioritize. Even when leaders are clear on who should be prioritized, they can face significant local pushback, whether financial or political, when attempting to develop housing options that prioritize people with criminal records and/or complex health needs.

To support jurisdictions seeking solutions to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) hosted a series of virtual Communities of Practice in 2021 and a follow up webinar series in 2022. These virtual sessions brought together teams of state and local leaders from across the justice, housing, behavioral health, and other systems, where they received training and assistance to help them implement community and state-level strategies to increase housing with supportive services.

In the first of a series of web articles lifting up themes from these sessions, here are four questions leaders often face when wanting to create new, equitable housing opportunities for people with complex health needs leaving incarceration:

1. Why should leaders create new, equitable housing units specifically for this population?

The affordable housing crisis makes clear that there are not enough units available to meet the needs of most communities. This challenge to house people is often exacerbated by the stigma and additional barriers that many people with criminal records and behavioral health needs face. For Black and Hispanic Americans, it can also be coupled with the effects of redlining and on-going discrimination in the housing market that have limited the amount of housing available to them.

However, communities that invest in housing paired with supportive services (such as case management, mental health treatment, and supported employment) often see increased community stability, increased engagement with community-based providers, and a reduction in returns to incarceration. Indeed, research shows that housing is essential to reentry and public safety. New housing opportunities can provide vital support and stability for people with complex health needs (i.e., mental health needs, substance use disorders, serious physical health conditions) who have higher rates of homelessness compared to the general population.

Strategies to increase housing opportunities can also include lowering policy barriers and increasing access to existing public and private housing units. However, without additional units, most communities will encounter problems meeting their housing demand even if they have implemented other housing strategies. New housing units, supported by (1) rental assistance to keep units affordable and (2) community-based interventions to help people stay in their housing, are the most effective ways to ensure greater access to housing for people who have historically been de-prioritized, and in some cases, regulated, out of housing access.

2. How can local leaders help to create opportunities for new supportive housing?

Leaders can start by securing funding and community support to construct, redevelop, or subsidize new housing—from large multifamily buildings to studio apartments in converted garages. This can involve:

  • Cultivating partnerships across different systems to generate mutual understanding, identify common goals, and align funding. Cross-system partnerships are important for local housing development due to the complex nature of development for even one building (such as securing multiple funding sources, obtaining community approvals, managing competing expectations, or meeting different supportive service needs). Therefore, these partnerships are even more critical if leaders desire to create additional housing units.

Local development partnerships should also reflect the communities where they intend to build housing, ideally including:

  • Representatives from community-based organizations,
  • Housing developers,
  • People who may reside in the new housing or otherwise have lived experience of homelessness or involvement in the justice system,
  • Potential funders (e.g., banks, hospitals, health plans, faith-based groups),
  • Organizations with experience in housing finance (such as community development corporations),
  • Housing or criminal justice agency leadership or staff, and
  • Advocacy organizations.
  • Conducting readiness assessments to help identify the strengths and gaps in a proposed development project that prioritizes people with complex health needs leaving incarceration. Some questions to consider during a readiness assessment include:
    • What mutual goals exist among partner organizations?
    • How can the jurisdiction ensure racial equity in housing eligibility and placement (e.g., where housing is built, who is eligible for it, and who is referred to it)?
    • What financial capacity does the developer or housing provider have to create new housing opportunities?
    • What plans are in place to sustain operating expenses and supportive services?

Following the assessment, leaders should work with stakeholders who have experience in developing housing to address any gaps they found and create a development plan that includes rental assistance, operating expenses, and supportive services.

  • Gaining buy-in from local community members to ensure maximum community support. Ways to gain buy-in can include:
    • Hosting open houses,
    • Communicating the benefits of new housing to potential neighbors and people who will live in them, and
    • Highlighting how housing affordability is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution

3. How can states support cross-system approaches to increase the supply of supportive housing?

State policymakers can align their processes, funding, and policies to create dedicated pipelines that support new housing prioritized for this population while also working to advance racial equity and reduce systemic barriers. This can involve:

  • Establishing governance structures to help local leaders set up cross-agency, cross-system collaborative bodies. These structures can be used to set concrete expectations about roles and responsibilities across agencies and systems and to determine who is included, where funding comes from, and how decisions are made.
  • Dedicating funding to enable a sustained, long-term pipeline for prioritizing new housing for people with complex needs leaving incarceration. State policymakers can critically support these efforts by identifying different funding streams, pooling resources together, or issuing joint funding requests for proposals that prioritize groups or developers focused on housing this population.
  • Reducing access barriers to new and existing housing. This includes:

4. How can states leverage the American Rescue Plan or other federal funding to create more housing?

States can typically use these funding streams to pilot new programs or new housing development efforts that will need to be fully sustained over time. For example, Colorado (a presenter in the Community of Practice) used BJA Second Chance Act funding to launch a systems-wide approach to support housing development in the state. With the grant, Colorado’s state and local partners began their efforts by creating a small supportive housing program. After proving their model successful over several years, the program sustainably scaled up efforts into multiple, state-wide pipelines of new housing and supportive services.

For further information, states and local leaders can visit the following resources:

Photo credit: Housing Colorado

Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Division of Housing
Colorado developed a multi-family apartment building as part of its pipeline for permanent supportive housing for people leaving incarceration. Providence At the Heights (PATH): Second Chance Center even won a design award in 2020.

About the author

Image for:
Project Manager, Behavioral Health
Thomas Coyne provides technical assistance to jurisdictions addressing the housing needs of people with mental illnesses who are involved with the criminal justice system. Prior to joining the CSG Justice Center, he worked on health and housing policy with the
Health & Housing Integration team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He brings field experience from social work, having worked extensively with people who have serious mental illnesses in Washington, DC, as well as with families reuniting with their children from foster care in Michigan. Thomas earned his BS in criminal justice and BA in sociology from Madonna University and his MPP from the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University.
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