Around 15% of jail inmates had been homeless in the year before their incarceration and 54% of homeless individuals report spending time in a correctional facility at some point in their lives. Moreover, it is found that homeless people are arrested more often, their incarceration is longer, and they are re-arrested more frequently when compared to settled individuals.
These are the facts that shocks me. As I weekly go to volunteer to the Samaritan House, and have monthly visits in the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center in Albuquerque, it brought me the awareness of this huge cycle. The U.S. legislation is playing a huge role here, as well as the lack of health care services, discrimination in housing, employment and voter registration for those, who have a history of incarceration.
First of all, I would like to look deeper into the laws of the U.S. When it comes to the homelessness, there are two branches of law: laws designed to help the homeless get aid, shelter, and food to improve their quality of life, and laws designed to criminalize homelessness and force the homeless into shelters. Unfortunately, the trend of criminalizing homelessness continues to grow much faster. People are punished for carrying out life-sustaining activities in public, like asking for money or food, sleeping or camping and eating in public spaces. Homeless individuals are punished for things, which for me is a common sense to have a right to.
Moreover, there is a shortage in the health and behavioral health care services for those, who are / were detained by criminal justice authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that more than half of adults in jails or prisons are mentally ill. And inmates who had a mental health problem were twice more likely to have experienced homelessness one year prior to the incarceration than inmates without a mental health problem. Substance abuse among inmates and homeless people is another reason bringing them into the cycle of homelessness and incarceration. Sadly, mental health problems are often underestimated by the governmental institutions, which turns into the lack of attention to the health care.
Lastly, I would like to talk about the difficulties in housing, employment or voter registration, which occur for former inmates. Last Autumn, I was working with a group of students from UWC-USA with the organization called “Wings for Life”. This organization helps for families, which have one or more members with a history of incarceration, and for former inmates, who struggle creating their new life and integrating into the society after coming out of the prison. Therefore, one of our projects, that we needed to do, is to make a map of places, where former inmates are welcome to get a housing or get employed. We were all surprised of peoples’ attitude towards inmates and their families. Is it hard to give a second chance? To understand that everyone makes mistakes, and it’s often only the matter of luck, if one gets incarcerated because of that mistake or not? To help each other out instead of punishing and exercising power over one another?
So far I mentioned a lot of negative aspects of homelessness and incarceration. But is there any light out there? I believe, there is. First and foremost, I want to invite everyone to research more about all the details behind the homelessness and incarceration, to get educated and share that knowledge with others. Moreover, I want to encourage everyone to make an impact in their local communities – don’t be scared to protest against certain laws, raise awareness of other people, do voluntary work – that is where the change starts.
I came to Las Vegas, New Mexico, almost one year ago, and I can already tell that this small town is full of people with great ideas, ambitions, and courage to make a difference.