By Damita Davis-Howard
San Francisco Chronicle
June 30, 2016
In 2013, my 17-year-old son was incarcerated. Upon his release in 2014, he moved in with the mother of his son and her family in public housing in Oakland. But only a year later, he was notified that he had to leave his home and relocate. Oakland Housing Authority could demand this because he had a felony conviction. My son has been homeless since that time.
The Oakland Housing Authority must eliminate the practice of automatically evicting public housing residents for having family members with criminal records live with them, if there is no valid reason for the eviction.
For my son, leaving a home he shared with his 7-month-old son was heartbreaking. My son lost his own father at the age of 13, so to have his young son live without him was devastating. But, unfortunately, he had no recourse — the housing authority had spoken.
Last month, President Obama announced new actions to help people coming home from prison reintegrate into their communities. In particular, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is awarding $8.7 million to organizations working to help people trapped in a cycle of incarceration and homelessness.
Approximately half of Alameda County’s homeless people live in Oakland. Many of the homeless were previously incarcerated.
A new report, “The Long Road Home: Decreasing Barriers to Public Housing for People with Criminal Records,” reveals how policies that exclude people with criminal records from public housing have long-lasting, damaging impacts on health and equity in our communities, including an increase in homelessness.
In April, HUD advised private landlords that denying renters housing based solely on a felony conviction is discrimination. This is primarily because the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and convicts black and brown people as felons. Therefore HUD urges private landlords to consider an applicant in their entirety — not just their criminal status.
Public housing officials should heed this same advice. As a government agency, public housing authorities should be on the forefront of providing housing to all individuals and should facilitate people’s re-entry into their communities upon their release from prison.
The “Long Road Home” recommends that before anyone is denied public housing based on their criminal record, he or she should have an opportunity to present mitigating circumstances to show how they have worked to rehabilitate themselves.
Using the Oakland Housing Authority as a case study, the report shows that if mitigating circumstances were presented initially, it is likely that far fewer public housing denials would occur.
In addition to becoming homeless, my son can’t be a full-time father to his son and has struggled to find a job because of policies that prevent him from living with his family.
Family members play a powerful role in supporting their loved ones returning home from prison or jail. Public housing authorities can improve community safety and reduce recidivism by providing formerly incarcerated folks the opportunity to have housing and stability.
Housing is a human right and all public housing authorities have a moral obligation to eliminate the unnecessary barriers that are keeping families apart.
The Rev. Damita Davis-Howard is an assistant pastor at First Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and a leader with Oakland Community Organizations, which served as an advisory committee member on “The Long Road Home.”