As a result of a policy change made in May 2015, public housing options have become much more accessible for the formerly incarcerated and homeless.
“The town looked at other communities’ exclusionary periods for people with criminal histories and realized that in many cases our waiting periods were longer than other housing authorities,” said Sarah Viñas, housing and community planner for Chapel Hill.
“At the same time, there were advocacy efforts from outside groups like the Partnership to End Homelessness, and the North Carolina Housing Coalition, and the public defender’s office encouraging us to look at the waiting periods for people with criminal histories, and also to establish homelessness as a preference.”
Viñas said when a homeless individual now goes through the application, their homeless status gives them preference.
“We have a lot of great agencies that work closely with the homeless population. They tend to provide a lot of support," Viñas said. “It was a really collaborative effort. We’re proud that we’re able to make these changes.”
Since the policy changes, public housing has received six applications from people who are homeless and has housed one applicant so far. It has also received 46 applications from those with criminal charges and has placed 17 of those on the waiting list — something impossible without these policy changes.
Bethany Chaney, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, said she is pleased with the decreased restrictions for receiving public housing.
“Often times, the barriers to accessing services have a lot to do with fear, suspicion and an inability to engage because the housing situation is so unattainable,” she said.
Other housing initiatives are being considered as well.
“One idea that has begun to surface is the idea of creating new shelter models, perhaps a single room occupancy model,” Chaney said. “Something that enables a community for street homeless people who are willing to follow a few guidelines in order to access that housing.”
The positive effects of these changes can be seen especially through the Inter-Faith Council.
“Currently we have 36 guys staying in the shelter, and normally we have been up closer to 50, so it really has had an impact in allowing people to get into housing sooner,” said Michael Reinke, Inter-Faith Council executive director.
“Affordable housing is a right that everyone should have. If someone is staying in a homeless shelter or staying on the street, certainly the situation is pressing. It’s also extremely important to make sure that the formerly incarcerated have housing.”
Recidivism, or the reincarceration of former prisoners, is a serious issue as well.
“Going back to prison is a huge problem,” Reinke said. “There are three things that determine the likeliness of whether or not you’ll go back: if you have a job, if you have transportation and if you have permanent housing.”
He said the housing authority needs to point out to the county commissioners how big the affordable housing problem really is.
“To me, this new policy is huge, it’s fantastic,” said Reinke. “It will save our community so much in terms of raw dollars, but more importantly, it’ll save people’s lives.”
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