Delaware launches statewide family reentry program

The Flats, an affordable housing community in western Wilmington, Del. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

The Flats, an affordable housing community in western Wilmington, Del. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Finding stable housing is one of the most difficult roadblocks to success for people returning to the community after serving time in prison. Getting a place to live can be even more challenging because public housing rules prohibit people with criminal records from living there.

“We believe in second chances,” said Dave Bever, executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice. “Both experience and evidence tell us that family support and stable housing is a crucial component of successful re-entry.”

He said without those two things it’s “nearly impossible” for those returning from prison to be successful. “This pilot project provides that foundation by removing a major barrier to real second chances for folks, especially in the middle of a pandemic that’s been really hard on re-entry.”

Under the pilot program, agreed to by every public housing agency in Delaware this week, the rules that banned former prisoners from living in public housing are being changed. Approved participants will be allowed to live in public housing as a guest of their family for a year or two depending on their conviction history. After completing a trial period, those participants could be eligible to be added to the families public housing lease.

Delaware State Housing Authority director Anas Ben Addi said while similar programs have been tried in other locations, Delaware’s pilot project will be the first that’s available on a statewide scale.

“We don’t have a single state where an ex-offender, a returning citizen, it doesn’t matter where they are, can pick up the phone, can fill out an application and go through this process,” Ben Addi said.

The pilot program also helps protect the family welcoming a loved one back into the community. Previously, if that person violated their probation or committed another crime, the family was in jeopardy of losing their public housing.

Delaware State Housing Authority director Anas Ben Addi talked about the pilot program in a virtual news conference Thursday afternoon.

“If something happened, the entire family might lose their assistance, rather than just having the guest leave,” Ben Addi said of the previous rules. “What this guest policy does, is it allows the family to bring the member on, and it doesn’t penalize the family in case something goes wrong.”

The change is part of a series of reforms Gov. John Carney called for in 2018 with an executive order designed to reduce the cycle of recidivism. According to Carney’s office, about 23,000 people are released from prison each year in the state — and about 76% of them are rearrested within three years.

Placing a returning citizen with their family when they first get out is the best time for them to be in public housing, said Carrie Casey with the New Castle County Housing Authority. “If someone was on active probation, they were not able to join into a household, we learned that’s when you want someone to join a household because they’re getting a lot of case management.”

DSHA hopes to learn more about how the program can work better and possibly expand it in the future. “This is not the finish line,” Ben Addi said. “We are looking at this pilot to really understand the dynamic and use the information that we learn to expand.”

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