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Formerly Incarcerated - A Week With Chicago's Homeless

Let’s be honest. Criminals are not typically people we feel much sympathy for. Many have done bad things that frighten us, make us angry, or offend our core values.

But our laws say that if you’ve gone to jail and done your time, you are released into the public. And for the 600,000 people who transition from prison to the general community each year, it’s exceedingly difficult to get a job or secure housing.

These formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. And with public demand for strong enforcement of nuisance crimes like sleeping in public spaces, panhandling and public urination, they’re likely to get funneled back into the system through re-arrest and re-release a number of times.

So as we explore the question this week of “just who is homeless in Chicago” the formerly incarcerated population is one that we can’t ignore. Particularly if we break the prison-to-homelessness-and-back-again pipeline, we need to remove the structural barriers that keep formerly incarcerated people from becoming productive members of society.

It’s Hard for The Formerly Incarcerated to Get Work

Today, formerly incarcerated people have a 27% unemployment rate – much higher than the 3.6% unemployment rate of the general population. Unemployment is a particular challenge immediately following their release and for their first two years out of prison, when unemployment peaks at 31.5%. And the jobs that they typically do land are the lowest-paid and the most insecure.

Indeed, in Illinois, there are 118 job licenses that can be denied for the simple reason of a criminal record – preventing employment in jobs like solid waste site operations, slaughterhouse processor, pawnshop operator, EMT, insurance adjuster, athletic trainer, dentist, nutritionist, funeral director, chiropractor, optometrist, architect, interior designer, land surveyor, roofer, auctioneer, shorthand reporter, deaf interpreter, and geologist.

Yet They Want Work More, and Are Better Workers Than The Average Population

Despite public perception, the formerly incarcerated desperately want to get jobs. 93% of them are actively looking for work or employed, as compared to only 83% of the general population.

The fact of their incarceration is a challenge in the job search process, however. Having a criminal record reduces employer callback rates by 50%

These employers are missing out on great workers. In the military, a study of 1.3 million enlistees showed that people who had been incarcerated were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than the general population. And a study of job performance at a call center found that the formerly incarcerated had longer tenure and were less likely to quit than their counterparts.

There Are Few Places The Formerly Incarcerated Are Allowed To Live

Structurally, there are a number of places where the laws prevent the formerly incarcerated from owning or renting homes.

An NBC Chicago expose found a high population of former offenders living in motels along interstate highways on the outskirts of the communities they are required to live in. Often, these individuals have few other places where they can legally reside, because - depending on their community - they must keep 1,000, 2,000 or even 3,000 feet or more away from parks, schools and a variety of other places where kids might be. These are places scattered throughout many residential neighborhoods, leaving the formerly incarcerated few places they can live.

We know that when people live in hotels or motels they pay more rent per night than they typically would in an apartment, which can also drive people to homelessness.

Depending on the offense committed, some former offenders can be completely barred from ever being admitted to public housing or receiving Section 8 housing vouchers.

Even in areas where the formerly incarcerated are legally allowed to live, public housing authorities and private property owners are allowed to implement criminal record checks, credit checks and other application requirements (like personal and professional records requests) as part of their housing application process. In practice, this gives landlords a lot of discretion to shut the formerly incarcerated out of their housing.

If the formerly incarcerated finds appropriate housing, they must be in close touch with the State. Phil has been a registered sex offender for 11 years, and is a Chicagoan – Cook is the county in the state with the highest percentage of them. Three years after he was convicted, he moved but forgot to notify law enforcement of his address change. He was charged with a Class 4 Felony, fined $500 and served 10 days in county jail - but Illinois law says he could have had 10 years added to the time he must spend on the registry or had his parole or probation revoked, putting him back in jail for a much longer time.

The Formerly Incarcerated Need Mental Health Support

Living in a prison is radically different than living in the general population. Physical and sexual assault, fights, and other acts of violence are common in a prison setting, and the ongoing climate of trauma can create anxiety, depression, phobias and PTSD in prisoners who previously had no serious mental health issues. Prisoners rarely, if ever, get comprehensive therapy, and more than half of inmates are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

Living productively in the general community, then, often requires mental health treatment and support in order to help the formerly incarcerated maintain employment and stable housing post-incarceration.

What We Are Doing

At Care For Friends, we connect Chicago’s most vulnerable with the resources they need to achieve a better quality of life. With 15,000 homeless contact per year, we create a community that doesn’t just connect Chicago homeless with basic needs like food and hygiene, but also connection to job training, housing, and better mental and physical health.

Our homeless youth initiative also provides a venue for nearly 300 of Chicago’s homeless students to have a safe place to study, receive tutoring, and prepare for college exams. Partnering with DePaul University, we have a goal of getting three of them enrolled in college next Fall.

To support these initiatives, we will be hosting our annual “Sleepout For Homelessness” where we plan on having 200 individuals spend one night with us to fund a year’s worth of programming. Learn more about the event (and sign up as a sleeper, supporter, or volunteer) at

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