By Dan Griffiths
In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were approximately 107,400 veterans in state or federal prisons. Veterans in this situation, upon release, face increased barriers in obtaining housing, leaving them at a higher risk of homelessness. This combination, of homelessness and justice-system involvement, can be viewed as a double threat in which the experience of one contributes to and worsens the risk of the other, ultimately leading veterans into a recurring cycle of homelessness and incarceration.
For U.S. Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (DOL VETS) program staff who support veterans as Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program (DVOP) specialists, career coaches, and case managers, it is essential to employ strategies and solutions that connect recidivism with housing insecurity and homelessness among justice-involved veterans. Strategies to mitigate veteran homelessness need to include efforts to address and reduce justice-system involvement. This means partnering with law enforcement, the courts, corrections personnel, and re-entry support services at every phase of the justice-system process
|“About one-half of all veterans experiencing homelessness who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.”- U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness|
– from arrest to reentry into civilian life. Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices provides a map of all the intercept points where DOL VETS Jobs for Veterans State Grants (JVSG) program staff have opportunities to engage veterans as they move through the justice system process.
Emerging best practices reflect how states and communities are leveraging their DOL VETS JVSG and Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP) resources in concert with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and applicable housing, employment, and healthcare programs to actively address and develop solutions that mitigate recidivism and homelessness among justice-involved veterans. Some of these best practices include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Pre-entry Solutions – Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC) engage with veterans before they enter the justice system. Unlike traditional criminal courts, the primary purpose of a VTC is not to determine whether a defendant is guilty of an offense, but to ensure that he or she receives treatment to address unmet clinical needs. As a best practice, Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) Specialists and DVOP specialists should collaborate with other veteran service providers on pre-entry, in-reach, and outreach strategies that can help communities plan to meet the needs of justice-involved veterans using approaches that best fit their local circumstances.
- When conducting in-reach, DVOP specialists facilitate workshops inside of correctional facilities for soon-to-be-released incarcerated veterans to ensure that they are aware of available housing, employment, and healthcare resources. The VA’s Justice Involved Veterans PDF can serve as a useful guide for DVOP specialists in linking a veteran’s immediate needs prior to release with available VA benefits they are eligible for that can help mitigate the risk of homelessness. This can be highly effective when paired with existing VA programs that are already operating within the justice system:
- The Health Care for Re-entry Veterans (HCRV) program services include outreach and pre-release assessment services for veterans in prison, referrals, and linkages to medical, mental health, and social services, including employment services and short-term case management assistance on release.
- The Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program actively develops and maintains partnerships with key elements of the criminal justice system at the federal, state, and local levels to identify justice-involved veterans within those systems in an effort to provide them with access to VA services at the earliest possible point.
- Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) projects promote collaboration and coordination between community-based organizations, foundations, state and local justice agencies, and the workforce system for the delivery of focused services.
- An effective outreach model for assisting justice-involved veterans in transition relies on a tool that is not used to determine eligibility, but rather a road map, or decision tree. The Assisting Veterans Experiencing Homelessness Through VA or Non-VA Programs is a simple framework developed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) to help guide decisions regarding the sets of programs that can best fit justice-involved veterans based on their military service record. Applying American Job Centers (AJCs) and JVSG assets and tools to facilitate the availability of resources for job search assistance, federal bonding, employer tax incentives, education, and training can have a positive impact on our justice-involved veterans.
Following these best practices, along with others, can help leverage available supportive services and assets within our JVSG service areas in reducing recidivism through effective housing solutions. However, the troublesome question that drives almost every engagement remains – Why do so many veterans struggle to stay housed as they adjust to life after prison? As mentioned earlier in this article, it is a vicious cycle. For instance, veterans need a job to pay for housing, but they need an address to put on an application to get a job. In addition, it is not uncommon for veterans to want to keep their distance from government programs after incarceration, rejecting the idea of leaning on a system that until recently imprisoned them. It is important for DVOP specialists to help veterans overcome this mindset and see that the tools and resources available for justice-involved veterans are specifically designed to help them realize their “returning citizen” status. Utilizing these resources does not make veterans indebted to a system; it simply means they are utilizing all of the resources they earned in service of their country to set themselves up for success.