Opinion

With the homeless population in Northwest Arkansas growing as more and more inmates are released prematurely from jail, our filling shelters and streets demand a solution.

Former inmates are ten times more likely to be homeless than the general population, according to the Pew Research Center.

No matter the severity of the crime committed, any criminal record considerably limits an ex-inmate’s housing and employment opportunities, according to a 2017 Business Insider report.

San Francisco faces the same problem as Fayetteville: Not only is the large homeless population becoming more and more difficult to accommodate, but the number of ex-inmates among them is growing as well.

The Homecoming Project, local to San Francisco, has proposed a small-scale solution to the number of released inmates left homeless. It takes a more holistic, purposeful approach than typical reentry programs by matching returning citizens with local families willing to open their homes.

Living in a home with a family provides returning citizens with opportunities to learn crucial skills and experience parts of the everyday that those on the outside take for granted. For example, serving ten years for a non-violent drug possession charge means an inmate misses out on a decade of developing independent living skills and interacting with new technology.

Instead of living alone, or even more likely, on the street, returning citizens have the opportunity to ask questions about the things they may have missed out on learning, like new phone software, online banking or cooking.

Although the idea would likely be met with controversy from residents, a transitional housing program for former inmates could certainly find success in Northwest Arkansas.

Implementing a program similar to the Homecoming Project could ease the homelessness crisis in Northwest Arkansas and ease the transition into life after prison.

While there are nonprofit organizations and government agencies in place to help former inmates find jobs — often in construction, maintenance and janitorial services — very few exist to help them find housing.

Former inmates have very few housing options to begin with. Public housing and reduced-rate housing may be off limits to them, and conditions of parole may restrict where they can live. On top of a nationwide lack of affordable housing, landlords are often reluctant to deal with those released from prison, even for nonviolent crimes.

Most inmates in the U.S. leave prison and have no choice but to go straight into the shelter system, when one exists locally.

In 2017, 54% of the inmates released from the New York City prison system immediately moved into the city’s shelter system. Predictably, homelessness increases recidivism — the likelihood that former prisoners will reoffend — meaning secure housing will help ensure former inmates do not return to prison.

While the benefits of the Homecoming Project are clear, it could initially be difficult to find hosts. Why exactly would property owners want to rent to someone who has committed a crime when you could rent to someone with a clean background check? By focusing on the group of ex-inmates least likely to reoffend — those who have served the longest sentences of ten years or more — hosts generally don’t have to worry about their tennant recommitting.

One participant, Sabina Crocette, whose household includes herself and her daughter, said she felt safer taking someone in via the Homecoming Project rather than a random renter from Craigslist or Airbnb.

Families who host former inmates through the Homecoming Project don’t have to on their own dollar. They receive a stipend of $775 every month to substitute rent, as well as pay for groceries and utilities in the two months they host.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to find 10 to 20 residents willing to open their homes to a nonviolent former inmate transitioning to life after prison. Our community’s willingness to accept refugees and continued support of resources for the homeless serve as proof that, with the right resources, something like the Homecoming Project could be successful in Fayetteville.

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