Jun. 7, 2021 11:35 am

Homelessness in reentry is a serious concern. Here’s what Philly is doing about it

The Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and JPMorgan Chase are partnering to provide a full-time housing counselor from Clarifi to work with returning citizens.

(Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas from Pexels)

According to the Prison Policy initiative, people who have been to prison experience homelessness at a rate nearly 7 times higher than the general public, and people who have been incarcerated multiple times are twice as likely to be homeless than that.

So the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO) and JPMorgan Chase recently partnered to extend approximately $160,000 in funding to provide a full-time housing counselor from Clarifi to work with returning citizens as part of the federal Supervision to Aid Reentry (STAR) Program.

The STAR Program, also known as Reentry Court, is a program run by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Created in 2007, the program provides intensive support and wraparound services to Philadelphia residents on supervised release and has been nationally recognized for improving outcomes for individuals with high-recidivism risk and a history of violent crimes.

CEO solicited feedback from STAR participants to inform their investment in this program. It found that obtaining affordable housing was one of the biggest obstacles facing the participants upon their release.

(Graph by Prison Policy Initiative courtesy of Clarifi)

“Often formerly incarcerated individuals, particularly those of color, are forced to navigate unfair systems that can keep them and their families in poverty,” said Mitchell Little, executive director of CEO. “Our mission is to provide them with the tools to navigate those systems, so they have a chance to reach their full potential. We believe this partnership does that by removing one critical barrier from their path. Partnering with a housing counselor from Clarifi, we will work with returning citizens for up to a year before their release to prepare them for life after they come home.”

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Chelsea Barrish, Clarifi’s VP of programs, said that “Clarifi, at its core, is a financial empowerment organization, and through partnerships like this one, we are becoming the leading housing counseling agency in the region.”

“Finding safe and affordable housing is a significant challenge for many formerly incarcerated individuals,” Barrish said. “Our counselor will help STAR participants to create a custom action plan that aligns with their immediate and long-term housing goals, including steps like saving for the first month of rent and identifying safe and suitable housing.

“Additionally, participants receive financial empowerment services, which focus on building financial resilience through savings, credit improvement, and practicing healthy financial habits,” Barrish added. “To incentivize participants, those who work toward completing their housing goals will receive grants of up to $1,000.”

Steve Gardner, president and executive director of Clarifi, explained some of the specific challenges people face in reentry.

“Returning citizens are too often forced into unregulated room rentals or even staying with other high-risk individuals just to have a place to sleep,” Gardner said. “The instability created by these living situations can snowball into bigger issues and increased odds of recidivism. By helping returning citizens secure housing, we’re stopping this dangerous cycle of repeat detentions and giving these individuals a real opportunity to contribute to their communities and make up for lost time with their families.”

Judge Timothy R. Rice, from the US Eastern District of Pennsylvania agrees. “Returning citizens face enormous obstacles as they attempt to rebuild lives.,” he said. “Without safe and affordable housing, those obstacles can become overwhelming to even the most committed individuals.

The STAR program engages 30-40 participants annually, the majority of which are people of color from Philadelphia who have low-wage jobs or are underemployed. Participants attend bi-monthly court sessions in front of a judge for 52 weeks, and if they successfully “graduate,” they receive a full year off their supervision term.

The program brings together a group of professionals representing a number of services provided to the participants, including federal judges, their reentry staff, a representative from probation, a tutoring program, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Federal Defender, volunteer attorneys and law students, and Temple University’s Fox School of Business financial literacy program.

Of STAR’s 255 graduates, only 10% have been arrested or revoked, while 14.6% of the 355 total participants have been arrested or revoked. This is compared with the district’s 34.5% revocation rate for individuals in similar situations. By STAR’s estimate, the program has saved taxpayers $2 million each year.


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