Ideas Worth Stealing: Why this program for ex-offenders is working better in rural areas

    File image of Zach Hassinger at an apartment in downtown Lewisburg

    File image of Zach Hassinger at an apartment in downtown Lewisburg

    Re-entry programs focused on housing aren’t uncommon, exactly. But it’s rare for local public housing authorities to be involved, and rarer still for them to spearhead the initiatives.

    Union County’s Housing Authority, however, took the lead with the county’s Justice Bridge Housing Program, which subsidizes apartments for select ex-offenders when they’re released from jail. Now in its third year, the program appears to be achieving its aim of reducing recidivism.

    Some other Pennsylvania communities have taken notice and want to start their own, similar initiative. But movement toward implementation thus far has been slow and limited to areas that are rural, like Union County.

    Union County results

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    The recidivism rate was 37 percent — lower than the county and state averages — for Union County’s Justice Bridge participants as of a year ago.

    Now, with 45 participants, the recidivism rate is down to 18 percent, according to Maryanne Bridges, who runs the authority’s Section 8 housing assistance program.

    Bridges appeared recently on a panel at the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance’s Homes Within Reach conference with Centre County Human Services Administrator Natalie Corman and Columbia County Housing Authority Executive Director Richard Kinser.

    Columbia County has a similar initiative up and running; Centre County is trying to start a pilot program, as is Tioga County.

    Union and Columbia counties were able to launch their programs in large part because they had some unused housing vouchers to put toward the program’s test phase. The goal is to demonstrate that providing housing vouchers is effective, with the hope that the county government will eventually support the program with money diverted from the expense of incarceration. The idea is that it would help prevent recidivism by ensuring stable housing for offenders.

    “[Long term] funding for people who are exiting incarceration needs to come from somewhere other than housing folks,” says Union County Housing Authority Executive Director Bruce Quigley. [“Maybe] take corrections money and relocate it. Because it’s always going to be distasteful to take housing and other resources, and give that to offenders first.”

    The corrections funding diversion Quigley described hasn’t happened in Union County, but money to continue the program has been secured from other sources. Those include the Behavioral Health Alliance of Rural Pennsylvania and domestic support grants for people with dependent children, according to Quigley.

    Union County participants are screened and selected by a committee with representatives from corrections, mental health, housing and probation/parole agencies.

    They’re trying to identify people for whom parole is imminent, and housing looms tallest of the barriers to successful re-entry. The committee looks for people without housing plans or with plans that are financially unsustainable or likely to become that way if the person doesn’t secure employment. Also, the program looks for people who are in the same environment as the one that might have initially resulted in their criminal behavior, with the thought that getting them out of that environment would be helpful.

    Rural advantage?

    In addition to the possibility of available vouchers, rural housing authorities tend to have shorter waiting lists. So within six months to a year, the authority in Union, Tioga or Centre county might shuffle a successful Justice Bridge tenant to its “regular” Section 8 program or off assistance entirely and free up the “extra” voucher for the next re-entering ex-offender who qualifies.

    Recently released ex-offenders also face the difficulty of finding housing in rural areas, making a stronger case for trying something like Justice Bridge.

    It mainly comes down to location. Their intended home might make it difficult or impossible to find a job and attend meetings (such as with their probation officer or for group therapy) required as a term of supervised released — let alone handle both.

    And because public transit networks in rural areas are typically nonexistent or weak, the challenge is greater. Space is at a premium in group homes, where they exist at all.

    Interest abounds

    Centre County doesn’t have extra housing vouchers to use for its potential pilot, though, and officials didn’t respond to requests for an update on logistics and progress.

    In even more densely populated areas such as Allentown and Lebanon, housing officials say, people seeking support wait up to five years or a decade, depending on their income and other factors (family size, location preference, residency status, military service, etc.).

    Even getting enough funding to run a pilot program in the absence of excess units or vouchers wouldn’t make much of a difference in Lebanon because the housing market is close to saturated in the city, according to housing authority executive director Bryan Hoffman.

    Hoffman says many landlords already collect rents higher than rates he thinks would be politically feasible for the Justice Bridge program there. They also might decline because they think it’s too risky to rent to an ex-offender, or other reasons.

    “Maybe they’re working off the books and collecting cash, and the last thing they want to do is get involved with anything that would spotlight their business dealings,” Hoffman says. “One of the first questions some landlords ask is if they will get a 1099 at the end of the year, and [when I say yes,] they say they don’t want to do it.”

    Allentown has a “pool of willing landlords” for subsidized housing programs, although they haven’t been approached about a Justice Bridge initiative, according to city housing authority director Dan Farrell.

    Replicating such a program in the Lehigh Valley also would mean coordinating more stakeholders than usual because housing in the area is handled by two city-level agencies and one that serves two counties, Farrell says.

    And Farrell says he’s not aware of any discussions about funding or other logistics since earlier this year, when he and Hoffman attended an info session about the Union County program in Harrisburg, along with their counterparts from some other Pennsylvania cities and counties.

    Universal considerations

    Housing authorities also might have to change or bend their own policies to participate. Federal law prohibits public housing authorities from admitting anyone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine on a PHA-owned property or who has to register as a sex offender for life.

    But the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development released guidance last year warning against disqualifying applicants based on criminal history, because it could have a disparate impact on minorities.

    Lebanon’s first step is to scan and run applicants’ fingerprints, so Hoffman says the guidance — even though it wasn’t a mandatory regulation — gave him and the authority board “a lot of concern.”

    “Doing a background check could in and of itself could be considered discrimination,” Hoffman says.

    The authority turns away anyone convicted of a violent crime, but they’re provided a chance to appeal before the decision is finalized, Hoffman says.

    Allentown gives similar weight to criminal records; specifically, convictions within the past three years. The issue rarely comes up because applicants typically aren’t even considered until spending at least five years on the authority’s waiting list, Farrell says.

    But the agency has followed a one-strike policy for existing tenants arrested while living in authority-owned properties. The board’s now revising the policy in the wake of the HUD directive, Farrell says.


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