I got out of prison in 2012 after spending nearly two decades behind bars. After earning an associate of arts degree in biblical studies, a certification in Christian counseling, and working with reentry services for over 10 years, I still live in fear of being denied housing because of an old criminal conviction/record.
Finding housing when you have a felony conviction is extremely difficult. When I was released from prison, I lived at a sober living facility to get my life back on track, got a job and ultimately moved into transitional housing. After 6 months, I was given notice to vacate my unit in 3 days leaving me with no other choice but to stay with a friend who had to relinquish his Section 8 housing due to my past conviction. Even with a job, there was no way I could have found a place where they would have accepted my application because of the background check. Since then, background checks have oppressively hindered my ability to find places to live.
Barriers to housing affect my family as much as they affect me. My wife has taken the brunt of the burden, and she lives with a target on her back everyday because of my past.
Homelessness and mass incarceration are currently two of the most prominent crises in Los Angeles, and together, they form a nearly inescapable cycle. California has the highest homelessness rate in the country, and the U.S. Department of Justice has estimated 1-in-3 adults in the U.S. have either an arrest or conviction record. Formerly incarcerated people in the United States are almost 10 x more likely to be homeless than the general public, and in California, 70% of people experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration.
Homelessness can prevent a formerly incarcerated person from getting a job, visiting their children, and fulfilling other needs that are fundamental to reintegrating back to society. Additionally, homeless individuals are more likely to do time in jail than their sheltered counterparts, and research shows that access to housing reduces recidivism.
There are significant barriers beyond the high cost of rent that prevent people like us from securing housing. We are screened out when applying to rent housing due to criminal background checks in private rental, nonprofit affordable housing, and public housing units.
Private criminal databases pull source information from inadequate records and lack accountability procedures to ensure that they are accurate. Put simply, housing providers assess applications based on criminal background checks that evaluate unreliable information.
My story is not unique. Across California, there are 2.5 million working-age people living with an old conviction on their legal record that prevents them from being able to secure stable housing. There are over 800,000 of us just in LA County accounting for 12.5% of the Country’s working age population. The Board of Supervisors has a unique opportunity to make affordable housing available to those living with a past record throughout Los Angeles. Community and faith based organizations throughout the County are calling on the Board of Supervisors to implement Fair Choice Housing and prohibit the use of criminal histories for most offenses in determining access to housing. Fair Chance Housing removes structural barriers to housing and enables landlords to consider the merits of individual housing applications and provides people with a fair chance. Excluding people with a criminal past from good, affordable housing will only exacerbate the cycle of homelessness and incarceration in our communities.