It is estimated that anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the homeless population in the United States has a history of incarceration, according to the National Healthcare for Homeless Council.
From arrest to reentry, these individuals pose unique challenges to the criminal justice system and face a multitude of issues ranging from mental health concerns and substance abuse to something as simple as having a permanent address.
“Quite often what happens with homeless people is that they get arrested,” Cumberland County Prison Deputy Warden Michael Carey said.
For some, being locked up may actually bring some sense of stability.
“I’ve had numerous people say, ‘At least now I’m going to have somewhere to sleep tonight, I’m going to have somewhere I can take a shower and I’m going to have clean clothes,’” Kelli Beatty, correctional care manager, said. “... I know for some it is almost a relief to come here.”
On any given night there were more than 560,000 homeless individuals in the United States and more than 4,000 in Pennsylvania alone, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“It depends on what you would consider homeless,” Christine Ramond, mental health case worker, said. “A lot of times people will be coming in and wouldn’t really say they are homeless. They have friends that they would go to to spend the night, but I would say it would be somewhat common for us to get people who have absolutely no home plan.”
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Ramond said these individuals tend to come with a higher rate of mental health concerns.
A study conducted by Greg Greensburg found that individuals with a history of homelessness in the year prior to incarceration were 10 to 22 percent more likely than the general population to suffer from mania, depression and psychosis or have substance abuse issues.
Ramond said that schizophrenia tends to be a dominant mental health issue that she sees coming through the county.
“The challenges with them is getting insight into what the problem is and getting them to agree to take medication,” she said. “A lot of times if you can get them started on some anti-psychotic medication, they begin to clear and things are looking a lot better for them. For some people who are resistant to taking medication, because they believe it’s poison or what not, we have to go another route with them.”
Carey said it can become difficult to determine the mental health problems from a person’s homelessness and criminal behavior, noting that for every person with a mental health issue who is brought into the there are numerous others who do not commit crimes.
But for those who are able to get the treatment they need while in prison, the results can be transformative, Ramond said.
Release from prison
Problems posed by homelessness do stop at the prison walls. Simply finding a place to go after incarceration can be a challenge.
“It’s even more common to have people who believe they have a home plan but it’s not acceptable,” Beatty, correctional care manager, said.
She said these people may be living in a hotel or bouncing between the homes of friends and family without a permanent place to stay.
“That’s not sufficient for our standards,” Beatty explained.
Inmates who are released on probation or parole must meet certain standards when it comes to their living environment, like having a fixed address that is conducive to that person staying out of trouble with the law.
Even if there are no stipulations to their release like after the person makes bail or is released following their sentence, the situation becomes much more difficult for individuals without a permanent home.
“What do you do with them?” Carey asked. “We’ve driven them to the Harrisburg bus station. We’ve driven them to Carlisle CARES. ... We’ve tried to get them somewhere other than standing out here on the side of the road with the bag in their hands not knowing where to go. They don’t even know where they’re going.
“Is that our responsibility?” he added. “Well, I didn’t bring them here, but from at least a moral obligation we try to make do with as little resources as we have.”
For some, homelessness can be a precursor to incarceration but incarcerations can also be a precursor to homelessness because of policies against convicted criminals accessing federal housing assistance programs, challenges finding employment and general stigma of involvement in the criminal justice system, according the National HCH Council.
This can create a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
“I’m not going to be their probation officer for the rest of their life. I’m their probation officer until their term of sentence ends,” Karen Rhinehart, adult probation and parole officer, said. “If we’re saying, ‘OK, then just leave them in jail for two years less one day at the Cumberland County Prison,’ what happens the day they walk out?”