Help storm refugees find shelter

Denying housing to those with criminal records will perpetuate cycles of crime.

When hurricanes scattered to the winds tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents many landed on the soft soil of a nation eager to embrace them. The earth is beginning to harden - last month Federal Emergency Management Agency started cutting back on covering the cost of hotel rooms for evacuees, increasing the pressure to find permanent housing and thus perhaps increasing the ranks of those who are homeless as well.

For those with past criminal convictions, securing housing has been hard from the beginning. No matter how ancient, minor, or unrepresentative of their lives on the day waters swallowed the Gulf Coast, past criminal convictions have haunted evacuees.

As freshly rescued storm survivors stepped off planes in Denver and elsewhere, and as they sought relief from Red Cross agencies, their names were routinely run through criminal history repositories. The practice raises two critical concerns.

First, no one can be sure that the information in those databases is correct. Last year a Department of Justice report raised flags about their accuracy, and this year a report by state-level justice data officials found that some private data companies conducting background checks sometimes hand over information when they shouldn't - such as information about arrests that did not lead to conviction. Yet in those crucial moments when landlords decided which evacuees to rent to and which to turn away, "facts" in criminal files, even if faulty, were decisive. One private apartment rental application warned that should "a criminal history reveal felony convictions ... occupancy will be terminated and the Apartment Home must be vacated within 24 hours of notice." A Texas housing group's "Ten Rental Housing Tips for Hurricane Katrina Evacuees" called criminal background checks "common procedure for many property owners," and advised "be sure to answer questions about your criminal history honestly" to avoid eviction in the future.

Second, even if accurate, the impact, according to news reports, of criminal histories in the days and weeks after our nation's worst natural disaster is troubling. Honesty, though the best policy, did not serve Ronald Smith. When the New Orleanian was sent to Chattanooga, Tenn., he told local housing authorities about his conviction and current probation for cocaine possession. His application was rejected.

Antoinette Samson, a mother of three from New Orleans, reported her family could not get housing or food stamps in Texas because her husband had served time for possession of crack cocaine. As of late October, her family was living in a church.

And landlords would not rent to Heidi Screen because of a 2003 conviction for cocaine possession. Ms. Screen was looking for apartments for her husband and two teenage sons after being displaced by Florida's hurricane Wilma.

Does it make sense to deny families shelter because of a dated drug possession conviction? To be sure no one wants drug gangs terrorizing law-abiding apartment complex residents. But depriving displaced storm victims with criminal records from restorative aid actually works against public safety by creating even greater desperation.

Some national policymakers are rethinking blanket exclusions in place against people with convictions. Rep. Robert Scott (D) of Virginia introduced the Elimination of Barriers for Katrina Victims Act which would temporarily suspend denial of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamp, housing, and higher education benefits to victims of hurricane Katrina or hurricane Rita for certain drug offenses. Even before Katrina, both houses of Congress had introduced versions of the Second Chance Act, which would provide grants to state and local governments for post-release housing.

Local officials in Vermont have already crafted a plan to balance the need for people with convictions to secure housing with the public's interest in being safe. In December, six municipalities there signed on to a strategy developed by municipal officials, law enforcement and corrections personnel, and service providers brought together by the Burlington Housing Authority. In addition to calling for funding, services, and the creation of more housing stock, the Vermont plan encourages landlords to work with correctional officials and service providers, and suggests strategies such as rent guarantees, and a commitment to provide services, mentoring, or additional supervision to make renting to people with criminal histories less threatening. Indeed, earlier this month Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez announced a new initiative that will include transitional housing for people returning from prison.

These methods - designed to integrate people into the social mainstream - represent our best chance at safer streets and less crime. Katrina showed us that current criminal history policies allow us to turn our backs on each other when we shouldn't.

Kirsten D. Levingston directs the criminal justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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