Tammy West Studies Transitional Housing for Those Exiting Prison
OKLAHOMA CITY – House Majority Leader Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, this week held an interim study examining transitional housing for those leaving the criminal justice system. IS23-017 was held before the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. “Restarting life is a challenge under the best of circumstances, but it is even more so if you are trying to build a new life after incarceration” West said. "We know housing is a key component of long-term success. We also know there are solutions, and we know that there are roadblocks." West said during the study she wanted to hear and have robust discussion about both so lawmakers and others involved in the criminal justice system can work to maximize and ensure stories of success for those formerly incarcerated. Her hope is to find solutions that can be implemented to make a positive difference in the lives of these individuals. West gathered a team of experts on the topic asking each to share data or personal stories of how housing or lack thereof impacted them or those they serve in their personal, family and work life. Sarah Decker, the Oklahoma legislative strategist for Prison Fellowship, spoke on the key causes of housing instability and gave examples of policy responses from other states that address this issue. "When somebody has paid their debt to society and served a just punishment for an offense, any further barriers to success should always be limited to what's necessary to protect the public," Decker said. At the state and federal level, however, there are more than 1,300 legal barriers to housing and residency that relate to a criminal record, she said. There's also a lack of affordable housing in Oklahoma as well across the nation. Credit history issues and restrictions on public housing vouchers are additional hurdles. A private landlord's discretion to refuse renting to someone with a criminal record is an area where Decker believes lawmakers can encourage and incentivize second-chance renting. She also suggested housing providers that receive tax breaks or other benefits to create affordable housing shouldn't categorically exclude renters with a criminal record. Joy Block, a Prison Fellowship volunteer, shared her personal story of how she left prison homeless. She didn't have a stable address to give to her probation officer, and all the people who would allow her to live with them also had criminal background records, something not allowed for the formerly incarcerated, she said. Yet these were the only people who would take her in. Living from place to place or sometimes on the street, she felt unsafe and had a hard time securing adequate food for herself and her children. Not always having access to a place to clean up made it hard to find a job. Block said she also had mental health issues that required medications. Without a stable address, she could not get insurance or the care she needed. Block said she and her children eventually were accepted into the Exodus House, a Christian organization in Oklahoma City. She said it was a place where she gained spiritual growth that gave her the push she needed to stay out of prison. "With them being there with open arms and helping me out of that situation of homelessness, it helped me to be the person that I am today," Block said. "I felt special and that someone actually cared about me. Being accepted gave me a sense of peace and knowing that I could overcome the things that I once struggled with – crime, drugs, homelessness, those things." Block said at Exodus House she paid only a small fee for electricity, but they helped her start a savings account so she could build up money to transition into her own living space. This stability also helped her get off probation. "You don't know how good that feels," she told study participants, relating how in the past housing instability had landed her back in prison. Other study presenters included Damion Shade and Jennifer Williams with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. The two shared data correlating crime and adverse outcomes with lack of housing. They also related experiences of working on reentry programs with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. John Bae with VERA Institute for Justice discussed Oklahoma's survey supporting pro-housing polices and gave data on access versus barriers. Jacob Beaumont with Housing Solutions detailed how collaboration between the non-profit sector and government entities have provided solutions for criminal justice-involved individuals seeking stable housing in Tulsa County. Angel Wheeler with RISE Transitional Housing gave a program overview, including success stories as well as hardships endured by those leaving the criminal justice system. West thanked each presenter not only for contributing information for the study but also for doing what they do each day to make a difference for those trying to access stable, affordable housing after being incarcerated. "You are living the solution and providing the resources," she said. "And I know so much of that is just from a place of love and care and not from a place of money or means. It's literally showing up because you care for people, and there's no price you can put on that." West said she and other lawmakers want long-term solutions that solve these problems. "Because they are our problems," she said. "And they affect lives. They affect families. They affect generations. And I want us to be part of breaking these generational cycles. And we have the tools to do it. We just have to step up, and I think there are people here that are willing to do that."