In a few months, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority will begin allowing rent subsidies to be granted to homeless ex-convicts on parole or probation. The move is controversial, with some critics complaining that it rewards criminals, giving them special treatment and moving them to the front of the line for the limited and much-sought-after subsidies.
But that’s shortsighted. Homeless ex-convicts, including many who committed only minor, nonviolent crimes, don’t go away if they don’t get housing aid. Although there are risks associated with the new rule, they’re risks worth taking.
The county currently parcels out about 22,000 “housing choice vouchers” as part of the federally funded Section 8 housing assistance program. Of those, 510 are set aside for homeless people who meet several criteria, including being in a case-managed program and having been crime-free — and out of prison — for several years. The set-aside program, which has been in place for more than a decade, is an effort on the part of the county to reach the most underserved population in need of housing.
Until now, the people in that program were not allowed to be on probation or parole, just as they may not be for the general pool of vouchers. The new rule — adopted at the urging of advocates for the homeless and federal officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — will shorten the criminal check to two years and will make homeless probationers and parolees eligible.
Apportioning the vouchers is a difficult task. What’s more, reintroducing ex-offenders into communities is a precarious undertaking that challenges housing officials and understandably leaves neighbors worried. But this is a carefully thought out and rational move. “Research shows that ex-offenders who do not find stable housing in the community are more likely to recidivate than those who do,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan wrote in a letter to public housing officials last year. The Los Angeles city housing authority already allows applicants for Section 8 to be on parole or probation.
In a county that has roughly 51,000 chronically homeless people — more than any other in the nation — it is only right that some Section 8 vouchers should go to those in acute need. Ex-cons who qualify for the homeless set-aside vouchers are among the most desperate. But they are also supervised and working on changing lives addled by drugs, crime, homelessness, mental illness or some combination of all that. If they have served their sentences and put two years between themselves and a jail cell, does it make sense to deny them assistance? The set-aside program is about identifying those most in need of housing and giving them priority.