Q&A With a National Expert: Dr. Jocelyn Fontaine
By Jesse Duthrie
The Urban Institute, a national nonprofit agency, has played a role in gathering information, conducting research, evaluating programs, and educating Americans on social and economic issues for over four decades in the United States. Dr. Jocelyn Fontaine is a research associate in the justice policy center, and has covered housing issues for over 10 years.
DUTHRIE: In terms of recidivism rates, how critical is it for an ex-offender to have stable housing? Is it one of the largest issues for returning offenders?
FONTAINE: For those of us who work in this field, we like to think that housing is a place to call home. It is the very foundation, quite literally, which successful reintegration can be launched. If you don’t have a place to call home then it’s very difficult to maintain a job, connect with your social support, reconnect with your family members, and live a stable life.
DUTHRIE: There are several barriers that ex-offenders face in finding housing. If you could name the three most difficult barriers men and women returning home from prison are facing, what would they be?
FONTAINE: The first is limited access to public housing. One of the things many people toss around is that formerly incarcerated persons aren’t allowed to live in public housing facilities. That’s not entirely true. Recently there was a letter that was signed by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that was written to local federal housing authorities from the federal government about restrictions on who can live in public housing, but certainly not all formerly incarcerated persons are barred from living in public housing facilities.
Another barrier is lack of affordable housing. Most people coming out don’t have income and it can be difficult for them to find housing that they can afford. They’re faced with having to rely heavily on their family and friends who may not be the best source of social support at that moment. Sometimes people come from very criminogenic housing environments. They go back to living in the same neighborhoods where they were just arrested.
Third, there is insufficient housing assistance. That is people coming home from prison having to rely on people they know and what they know on how to find housing instead of a schematic that links them up with community based providers, who may be non-profit community based, faith based, or other organizations that are in the community who can help link people to housing support.
DUTHRIE: Do you have a specific example of how your work has been used by communities?
FONTAINE: The Urban Institute’s analysis of individuals returning from prison to the community in the state of Illinois helped inform implementation of the Safer Return Demonstration Project.
Through the Urban Institute’s Returning Home Project we found that a large percentage of prisoners were returning to only a small number of communities in the city of Chicago. Our analyses showed that releases from Illinois state prisons were highly concentrated in Chicago, but even more concentrated within a few Chicago neighborhoods—Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park. Those six neighborhoods, less than 10 percent of all the Chicago neighborhoods, account for more than one-third of the prisoners returning to Chicago.
As a result of this analysis and the number of reentry roundtables (early 2000s), the Urban Institute, in partnership with the nonprofit, social service organization called the Safer Foundation (based in Chicago, IL), decided to launch a prisoner reentry demonstration project, called Safer Return, in East Garfield Park. The demonstration, which is ongoing, was designed to build, implement and test a prisoner reentry demonstration project that is comprehensive and community based. It was developed based on UI’s research and interest in Chicago around doing something about this issue. It is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and jointly developed by the Urban Institute and the Safer Foundation.
DUTHRIE: A lot of citizens are unaware or unconcerned with the issues ex-offenders face. Yet the majority of people in prison will be released back into society. In your opinion how can we reduce social stigmas and help the men and women coming home?
FONTAINE: I think we’ve done a lot with the passage of the Second Chance Act, which received bi-partisan support. There is a growing knowledge that most people in prison will be coming back at some point. I think for the public it’s just increased awareness of this issue. I can’t put a number on it, but I’ll just say a lot of people know at least one person who has been touched by the criminal justice system: be that a family member, a friend, somebody they went to school with. The very real financial consideration is that we are paying for this. The cycling nature for the kind of people who just bounce in and out of systems including the corrections system and coming back and forth; we have to pay for that.
DUTHRIE: If there is one thing we haven’t covered today you feel should really be expressed to the readers of RELEASE, what would it be?
FONTAINE: What people need to think about is housing is just one of the challenges ex-offenders face. It’s a big one but the other issues that the returning population faces compound it. It’s definitely something worth highlighting and focusing on but it needs to be understood in the context of just how difficult it is for people to successfully reintegrate.