Home can transform lives – we just have to give people a chance
“As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them,” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
This insightful reflection by Michelle Alexander has stuck with me for some time. As someone who grew up white in a middle class, supportive family, my privilege has made it easy for me to stay out of trouble and make “good” choices. And even if I had made a few poor choices, my privilege would have made it easy for me to get back on the right path. So many others, however, are not as fortunate. So many others are desperate for a safe, stable environment. So many individuals are struggling to find love and respect from their community.
Sometimes this desperation turns into criminal activity, and the consequences can haunt individuals for the rest of their lives.
It’s time to make a change
We live in a country where individuals, especially those who are poor or a minority, pay for their crimes long after being released from prison. From steady work to a stable home, it is extremely difficult for people with criminal histories to access the building blocks they need to create a new life. This is a substantial problem, because research has found that individuals who have been incarcerated are at a significantly higher risk of becoming homeless, and individuals who are homeless are at a significantly higher risk of becoming incarcerated (National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 2013).
This is exactly why I was thrilled to learn about the new Research Collaborative Aeon has formed with other affordable housing organizations in the Twin Cities – CommonBond Communities, Project for Pride Living and Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. After discovering there isn’t much data available on tenants who have criminal histories, this Research Collaborative decided to do its own exploration on the subject. I talked to Brita Blesi, Aeon’s Evaluation Manager and co-facilitator of the Research Collaborative, about her involvement in the committee.
“If Aeon and other housing providers continue to deny housing applications due to applicants’ criminal histories, we would essentially be creating a group of ‘unrentables’ – people who cannot secure housing.
Through the Research Collaborative’s research, we will learn how a resident’s criminal history impacts his/her success in maintaining housing stability. We will use this information to adjust our resident selection criteria to avoid unnecessarily denying potential residents who will likely make excellent tenants but have criminal backgrounds. It’s an exciting prospect to work with our peers in the community to truly make a change to the way we are collectively able to help those with the greatest needs. The Research Collaborative is also fortunate for the generous funders who are making this work possible — NeighborWorks America and Otto Bremer Trust.”
Home makes everything possible
Aeon already has experience with residents who have criminal histories, and I am continually amazed at what is possible for these individuals after they have found a stable Home. From writing books to managing restaurants, these residents are proving that past crimes do not always predict future behavior — and that environment and community matter.
“I turned my life around in prison, but my criminal history made it difficult to find a home to rent. Fortunately, Aeon listened to my story and gave me a chance — it’s been six years and I am proud to say I’ve given them no reason to regret their decision. Now I even teach a curriculum to young individuals in need of direction and hope. I want to give back to my community and help others find their way to stability and happiness.” ~Dorsey, Aeon resident
Using data to make informed decisions, the Research Collaborative aims to find the “sweet spot” between being inclusive and ensuring safe properties. I am eager to learn how this group’s research will pave the way for more people to find Home and thrive.