By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Over and over again, people leaving incarceration say that they need better housing options.But they encounter persistent challenges as they return to their communities.
“There just needs to be more,” said Jason Seney, a Milwaukee resident who struggled for many years to find stable, permanent housing after being released from prison.
Although there are a range of urgent needs for returning citizens, including health care and employment, housing is at “the very top of that list,” said Roy Rogers, pre-entry liaison and information analyst at The Community.
The Community is a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that provides re-entry services.
‘Nowhere to go’
People getting out of prison, for example, often lack support systems.
“I had nowhere to go,” Seney said. ”I don’t have family to go to.”
Nationally, rates of homelessness among people returning from prison are hard to pin down. But estimates range anywhere from 10% to 25%, according to a report from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
As of the end of February, there were close to 13,000 people under some form of community supervision, like probation or parole, in Milwaukee County.
If estimates from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council hold true, there may be anywhere from 1,300 to 3,250 formerly incarcerated individuals in Milwaukee County who need housing.
This number does not include the people who are no longer on probation or parole but still have convictions on their record.
Rogers said getting affordable housing in Milwaukee can be hard for anyone, but especially for those who have been incarcerated.
Amy Hall, communications coordinator and public information officer for the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, said there are 6,000 housing choice vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, and 8,000 people on a waitlist for them.
And there are just shy of 5,000 units of public housing but 15,000 people on a waitlist for them.
In addition, returning citizens face blatant and open discrimination that others do not.
To address the dire need for housing among returning citizens, HUD has urged landlords to accept applicants with criminal records.
Landlords hold power
But the decision ultimately falls on the discretion of the landlord, said Emily Kenney, systems change director at IMPACT, a nonprofit that provides a range of social services, including housing advocacy, in Milwaukee.
Often rental applications will say prospective tenants “need a clean record.”
“And so then what it takes for us, on our end, is to make the case for why they should make an exception,” Kenney said. “But it does take us rallying.”
On top of this, criminal records make it harder to get things that landlords typically look for, like credit and rental histories.
“I’ve never rented an apartment, so I didn’t have any background,” Seney said. “And then I had felonies on my record, so nobody would rent to me.”
A vicious cycle
The lack of housing opportunities also creates more hardships.
“It’s hard to focus on your sobriety, your mental health, your employment, if you don’t have a place to sleep at night,” Julia May, bridge case manager at the Benedict Center, said.
The Benedict Center is an organization that supports and advocates for women who are involved in the criminal legal system.
Seney, who The Community connected with NNS, said this is precisely what happened to him.
“I started getting high again because I didn’t really care anymore,” he said.
Seney experienced a common cycle of being released, not finding housing, using again and being reincarcerated.
And he is not alone.
“For everybody I know, it’s the same,” he said.
About 15% of people who were released from incarceration in 2018 ended up being reincarcerated within the first year of release, according to a March 2022 report from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
That percentage goes up considerably over a longer time frame.
About 40% of people who were released in 2016 ended up being reincarcerated within three years.
Seney said he was finally able to make substantial progress after he stopped using substances. But that was only possible because he was able to find a drug treatment program that included 18 months of housing.
“After that came into play,” it was easier to maneuver, he said. “I didn’t have to worry about this or that, and then I managed to find a good job.”
Although things have improved, Seney’s housing problems are not solved.
“I live with my girlfriend. She owns the house,” he said. “But there’s nothing in my name.”
For questions about housing
Staff at The Community specialize in housing support for people who are reentering, and can be reached at email@example.com.
The Milwaukee Rental Housing Resource Center also provides a variety of housing-related services.
NNS reporter PrincessSafiya Byers contributed to this story