With one swing, sheriff looks to fell twin scourge: declining inmate population and homelessness

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Walled off from the jail, the Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center, when it’s fully operational, will provide 100 beds of transitional housing to recent parolees and the homeless in addition to providing programs and services for them.

ALBANY COUNTY — It’s an inextricable and toxic link: homelessness and incarceration, it’s a retrograde relationship imposed on the defenseless and defeated — and yet, it is getting better, albeit it in frustrating and faultless fits and starts.

Since hitting an all-time high in 2008, the correctional population of the United States — meaning every inmate in each of the country’s 3,163 local jails; 1,719 state prisons; and 109 federal prisons — has gone down every year for the past 10 years

And during the same period, the country’s overall homeless population dropped by a not-insignificant margin; however, in each of the past two years, there has been an uptick in homelessness.

But for New York State and Albany County, the prison-poverty problem is more of a good-news, bad-news situation. 

Since 1999, the New York’s prison population — collectively, the state- and federally-run prisons — has dropped by a third, which has been the fifth-largest prison-population reduction in the country. And, mirroring national trends, the state’s crime rate seems to have fallen off a cliff

In Albany County’s jail, the number of inmates in the last year alone has dropped by 45 percent, the second-largest decrease among the state’s 57 county jails. 

Whereas the state and county have cause to celebrate for helping to end mass incarceration, the state, in particular, has also earned the dubious distinction of being at the forefront of perpetuating the country’s homeless crisis

New York — the fourth-most populous state — with an estimated 92,000 people experiencing homelessness (about 78,500 were in New York City), in 2018, had more dispossessed residents than any other state in the country save California. Between 2007 and 2018, New York State had the largest increase in homelessness of any state in America, a 47-percent spike.

In addition, New York had the nation’s highest rate of homelessness, with 46 displaced persons per 10,000 people in the general population. And within the state’s border, in 2018, only New York City — 91 per 10,000 — had a higher rate of homelessness than Albany County, with 27 homeless per 10,000 people (in 2019, the county’s estimated homeless population is 750; in 2018, it was 835).

However, in comparison to California, very few homeless people in New York State are either without shelter or are considered chronically homeless.

In 2018, in New York State, just 4,265, or 5 percent of the homeless population was unsheltered; in California, 85,373, or 66 percent of the homeless population was unsheltered.

According to the federal government, a person is considered chronically homeless if he or she been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. 

In 2018, in California, 34,332, or about 26 percent of the homeless population could be defined as chronically homeless; in New York State, it was about 7,195, or about 8 percent. In Albany County, it was 7 percent.

In a first-of-its-kind estimate of homelessness among the country’s 5-million formerly-incarcerated residents, the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal-justice-oriented, public-policy think tank, found that formerly-imprisoned populace was “almost 10-times more likely to be homeless than the general public.”

That almost-10-times figure translated into a homelessness rate among America’s 5 million formerly incarcerated of 203 homeless per 10,000 people in the general population. 

Further, to illustrate the precarious living arrangements that formerly-imprisoned people are sometimes forced into, the study created a second metric — housing insecurity. 

This number includes not only the homelessness rate of formerly-incarcerated people but adds to it those people who are living in “marginal housing,” for example, a hotel or motel.  

“While we found that 203 out of every 10,000 formerly incarcerated people were homeless, nearly three times as many — 570 out of every 10,000 — were housing insecure,” the study states. 

An argument can now be made, like the one made by the Urban Institute, an economic and social-policy think tank, that, before trying to find a job or, say, stay sober, to successfully re-enter and then reintegrate with the outside world, a recently-released prisoner would be best served by finding a “literal and figurative” foundation from which to start — which is to say, adequate shelter.

“A vision”

And at the the recently-rechristened Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center, Sheriff Craig Apple has tossed a life vest to the county’s dispossessed citizens as well as former inmates trying to successfully  transition back into society with his Sheriff’s Homeless Improvement Project.

“So, the sheriff had a vision,” said Chief Deputy Kerry Thompson. “Because we have all this space, he said, ‘Let’s do something good with it,’” and, well-aware of the countys’ homelessness problem, the sheriff hit on the idea for the homeless-improvement project.

So, a portion of the jail has been walled off from the general population, the razor wire will be removed, fences will be pushed back, trees will be planted, and, eventually, benches and picnic tables will be purchased.

Those who decide to go through the program will have the opportunity to participate in and take advantage of every program and service that is offered at the county’s jail and rehab center, Thompson said. 

As for now, the program is an attractive albatross — there’s currently no way to pay for the actual management and administration of the new transitional housing program.

Thompson said that the sheriff’s office has partnered with the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society of Albany, which is applying for a grant to fund the program’s administrative costs and is also expected to take over management duties should a grant be awarded.

“That’s our hope,” he said, “that this grant will go through.” 

From what he understands, Thompson said, there has been positive support for the program at the state level. But, if the HATAS grant falls through, he said that other grants or funding streams will have to be pursued. 

Years ago, Thompson said, there used to be transitional housing available throughout the Capital Region. And while the sheriff is slowly rolling out the SHIP program — 25 beds to start — at capacity the shelter will have 100 beds, which would make the second largest shelter in Albany County; in fact, it would be the second largest shelter among the four core counties of the Capital Region: Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady.

With bail reform on the horizon, with the state’s Raise the Age law nearly implemented, with the jail no longer detaining undocumented immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and with the successful “diversionary” programs already in place, Thompson said, the expectation is that the number of inmates will continue to decline.

He added that the facility is well equipped to extend its programs and services to inmates transitioning back into society as well as being able to offer those things to the county’s displaced population. 

And there’s a definite need. 

New would-be facility residents, Thompson said, would have access to all of the programs and services “on the other side of the wall.” For example, the  jail-side’s parenting, mental-health, and addiction-care programs would be available to people living in the transition housing, whom, he said, are dealing with a lot of the same issues as the incarcerated.

Along with the facility’s regular educational services to help prepare for the General Educational Development (GED) test, Thompson said, the sheriff’s office has reached out to local unions and businesses to get them to come on site and to meet with the people living in transitional housing.  

There is also the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program, known as SHARP, which, for those who have participated in the treatment program, has dramatically reduced the possibility of ending up back in jail. 

Thompson said SHARP participants have a recidivism rate somewhere between 15 and 17 percent, which, he said, “is huge,” considering that inmates with an addiction have a typical recidivism rate of around 75 percent.

About half to two-thirds of the country’s incarcerated population are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Another new program called New Beginnings, Thompson said, has the inmate-services unit interview every person who comes into the jail to try to determine why he or she might come back, and what the sheriff’s office can do to help. Can it help with obtaining identification, a job, housing, or domestic-violence counseling? Then the staff will try to connect people with the programs they need.

Whether it’s incoming parolees or, obviously, someone coming in off-the-street to transitional housing, Thompson said, having access to the jail and rehab center’s programs and services could really help someone to lead a successful, productive life.

About 50,000 people who exit prison this year will make their first stop the closest shelter. By coupling the transitional housing with the sheriff’s services and programs, SHIP participants are put in a better position than most to avoid what the author’s of the Prison Policy Initiative study called the “revolving door” of incarceration, a cruel cycle of imprisonment and release that, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, can cause “barriers to finding stable housing and employment due to legal restrictions and discrimination against those with criminal records.”

Homeless in Albany County

In Albany County, rent is one of the major determinants of whether or not someone may wind up homeless. 

“Most of it is related to the lack of affordable housing,” said Michele McClave, the commissioner of the Albany County Department of Social Services.

So, when someone is trying to make a living on a very low income while trying to find and pay for housing — while also struggling to avoid an unexpected expense that forces four out of 10 American adults to have to borrow money or sell something to pay off the bill — the problem can become intractable, especially if kids are involved. 

“The fair-market value for a two-bedroom apartment in Albany is just way above what people can afford on such low incomes,” McClave said; a single, unexpected expense could put someone on the street. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renters considered as having extremely low-incomes — for an individual, that means annual take-home pay of $12,490 or less; for a family of four, it’s under $25,750 — face a shortfall of seven million affordable and available rental homes.

In New York State, “only 37 affordable and available homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

However, McClave said, “There’s a whole, big complement of services that are out there right now.” Albany County contracts with nine shelters — all in the city of Albany — that offer a combined 350 beds.

In addition, she said, there are private shelters in the city, with which the county does not have a contract; for example, the 200-bed Capital City Rescue Mission.

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, it can cost the public between $1,634 and $2,308 to shelter a homeless individual, while the cost to house a family can be anywhere from $3,184 all the way up to $20,031.

Shelters contracted with Albany County, McClave said, as part of their agreement, are supposed to work with each individual who comes in to:

— Find out how and why the person became homeless;

— Address those concerns — whether it’s an economic or budgeting issue, getting into job-training programs, or going back to a job they may have had, or getting into substance-abuse or mental-health treatment, or even if it’s transportation issues; and then

— Work with the individual or family to come up with a solution. 

And, in addition to helping the person with the issues that brought them in, shelters contracted with the county are to help that person find affordable housing — which may be independent living, or a supportive-housing situation, or where someone may need wraparound or case management services. 

Also, contracted shelters are to make sure the people who come in are getting both health and mental-health care, and, if necessary, substance-abuse treatment.

Joined: 01/01/2015 - 10:51
Great piece!

Great piece!

Joined: 01/01/2015 - 10:51
Let me say it again: This is an excellent piece of work!

I just said it: Sean has done a fine piece.

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