Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Democrat, is mayor of Gary, Ind., and president of the National League of Cities.
A home is a sanctuary. It is a place to replenish one’s soul and renew one’s spirit after facing the challenges of the outside world. The existence of such a respite is especially important for people who are reentering our communities from prisons and jails across the United States.
But many former offenders are denied housing — not because of the lack of funds or the failure to meet objective criteria, but because of their criminal history. Case in point: Matthew Charles, one of the first prisoners released under the First Step Act and one of President Trump’s guests at the State of Union address in February, has had difficulty securing an apartment, even with help from Kim Kardashian West.
There are already so many barriers to reentry, such as addiction to alcohol and other drugs, limited employment options and the need to reestablish family relationships. The ability to find adequate housing should not be on the list of those challenges. We must do better in preserving the right to housing for those reentering society, and I encourage my fellow city leaders to work with local housing partners to break down such barriers.
Even in my own city of Gary, Ind., returning citizens have experienced the same difficulty. In fact, in our Gary for Life Program, we promise those who chose rehabilitation an expedited road, but housing barriers make that promise difficult to keep. All over the country, many returning citizens face prohibitions against them living in public housing. Most landlords have adopted this policy as well.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout my life, I have worked in or around the criminal-justice system. Whether I was a deputy prosecutor, municipal judge, public defender or state attorney general, I always adhered to the belief that a person who has been criminally adjudicated should be held accountable and then given the tools to pursue a law-abiding life. This belief is rooted in our constitutional guarantees of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Most would agree that inherent in the pursuit of happiness is the right to housing.
But this issue can’t be addressed at the local level alone. Federal and state laws already prohibit discrimination for several protected classes, including race, religion, national origin, gender, disability and familial status. Should we add a category for returning citizens and include provisions when there is a legitimate business reason for exclusion? Or might we consider “banning the box” legislation that would prohibit landlords from asking about criminal histories on housing applications? Whatever the solution, it is time for a national dialogue to determine whether discriminatory housing policies against former inmates are rooted in legitimate fears or archaic beliefs.
We can no longer release a person from prison or jail, admonish them about re-offending and expect them to live happily ever after without support. This is especially a fantasy if we insist on creating extra barriers. If we are going to support each person in achieving his or her greatest potential, we must remove stigmas that serve no legitimate purpose. Local leaders such as myself are ready to work with state and federal officials to ask — and, most importantly — find answers to these questions. Let’s work together to ensure that every American truly has the right to life, liberty and happiness. To do less simply perpetuates the revolving door into the justice system.