Prison, Poverty, Homelessness

For families shackled by poverty, prison and homelessness become (almost) inevitable.

Barbed wire and razor ribbon would be a great investment. Photo Diane Nilan

Families bear the brunt of parents’ rampant incarceration. At “best,” it creates housing insecurity; at worst, homelessness.

According to the Just Housing Initiative in Cook County IL:

  • “1 in 3 Americans has an arrest record before age 25, which means that more people have an arrest record than a four-year college degree. In Cook County alone, there are more than 1 million residents with a record that can be a barrier to finding a stable home.

“This affects not only the individuals themselves but their families and our communities.

  • “The Illinois Department of Corrections reports that 62% of people in prison in our state are parents to children ages 18 and younger.”
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At least Cook County Jail tries to encourage women. Photo Diane Nilan

My nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc., visited Cook County Jail to survey women about their views on homelessness. Among the report’s findings:

· Housing instability was a common issue, often long-term, for most families. Many interviewees seem to understate or underestimate their housing vulnerability, often not considering “doubled-up” to be homeless.

· Grandparents are the safety net, albeit old and worn, for the children and families. Some women shared that they were in their parent’s home; or the children with grandparent/s while their mother was in jail, and that this living arrangement was precarious due to lease restrictions, poverty and/or overcrowding.

· Qualification for public housing, in jeopardy because of pending felony conviction for drug-related offenses disqualifying them from public housing, was a reality that faced many of the women, one which they seemed unaware.

· Involvement with the criminal justice system likely means the women will struggle to attain self-sufficiency. Employers and landlords increasingly check criminal records and eliminate those deemed risky because of prior criminal convictions. Without jobs or housing, the women and their families will be forced to resort to precarious arrangements for housing and illegal activities for income.

· The children are vulnerable because of their mothers’ involvement with the criminal justice system. This vulnerability potentially means another generation growing into the criminal justice system, a poor substitute for a stable lifestyle and productive future.

Homelessness 101

Let me spell out the typical pattern that creates/perpetuates family homelessness with regard to incarceration (similar patterns with other crises):

  • Crisis hits. Parent incarcerated. This upends what flimsy family stability might have existed. It’s traumatic for the children in the household.
  • Housing in jeopardy. Parent can’t pay the rent while in jail/prison. May lose their job. With no savings, and nowhere to get rent money, it’s easy to be evicted.
  • Education in jeopardy. The children might be farmed out to relatives or plunged into the foster care system. This often disrupts educational stability, forcing them to change schools, or maybe not even be able to go to school. Eviction forces relocation, often into tenuous, highly-mobile situations.
  • Family stability in jeopardy. The “system” doesn’t work well, so both kids and parents often must fend for themselves. It gets ugly. And the ugliness lasts a long time. Families tend to break up under the stress.
  • Homelessness becomes the reality. How long the family is homeless depends on the safety network in their community. Individual members of the family might be homeless for a long time. Some might fall into criminal behavior as an alternative to a life of desperation.
  • Homelessness + Incarceration = Disaster. Housing options become extremely limited once a person/family has a criminal record (see above). Shelters are scarce, so families/individuals turn elsewhere. They’re not considered homeless by HUD. They’re SOL.

Listen to Max in my video Worn Out Welcome Mat — New Jersey speak of his experience with family homelessness and incarceration. It’s agonizing.

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Link to NJ video Photo by Diane Nilan

Trying to Create Options

Related to the impact of incarceration on families — a major factor in homelessness — the incredibly narrow way the US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness. Their definition excludes millions of families/youth/individuals from HUD assistance.

Yeah, I know, I’ve harped about this issue forever, or at least since 2007 when the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) was first introduced. Yeah. Bipartisan. In fact, one of the co-sponsors, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), shared:

Having been raised in poverty by a mother who struggled with mental illness, I know firsthand how important community supports are and the difference they can make in people’s lives. We also must be aware of some of the children who slip through the cracks. In order to help children who are homeless, or have nowhere to go, we must make it easier for them to access the assistance programs that are offered in their communities….

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He’s not happy about homelessness either. Photo Diane Nilan

Can You Believe This Bill Has Opposition?

This article explains the more about the bill and also points to opposition. Fortunately support of the bill has been steadily growing.

Paul Hamman, CEO of Night Ministry, an enlightened proponent of HYCA, explains that passage of the bill could begin a transformation of the system to address the needs of homeless populations, including families and youth.

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He understands the bill’s detractors fear an increase in homelessness numbers. But he added that to ask for more resources to address the problem, we need a better understanding of who and how many people suffer from homelessness. Without that clearer understanding, Hamman contends the number of homeless people will only increase.

Back to Prison

The prison industry is complicated. This report, Mass Incarceration, clarifies many issues related to it. One vital point ties prison, poverty and homelessness together.

Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities.

We may not ever get to the point where we’ve totally eliminated family/youth homelessness, but can we quit allowing it to skyrocket?


Go to and TAKE ACTION. It takes just moments. We’re close to making this happen. Your action could be the thing that pushes it over the edge!

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He has a future — or not. Photo Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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