Shelter for All: An Interview with Judy Whiting
The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Judy Whiting, General Counsel for the Community Service Society (CSS), accompanies Breaking Free: Preventing the Prison-to-Shelter Pipeline. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.
Melissa Minnich: What are some of the big problems that your clients face as they leave prison and reenter civil society?
Judy Whiting: The insurmountable barrier is for people with sex offenses. They cannot get housing, period. Sometimes they remain incarcerated because suitable housing cannot be found for them; they are staying well beyond their release dates. Instead, they are put in residential treatment facilities, which are just the same prison with a different sign on the door. The biggest reasons for this bottleneck are the residency restrictions that prevent people who are a Level 3 registrant or whose conviction involved children from living within 1,000 feet of a school. When you map that out across the city, it means that just about every area is inaccessible for this group of people.
MM: What happens then?
JW: What used to happen, until a few years ago, is that many people on release from prison were sent by parole to the Bellevue Men’s Shelter on 1st Avenue and East 30th Street. The staff at Bellevue would then work with people and try to find them housing that was compliant with the law.
But at a certain point, a legislator made it known very publicly that Bellevue was within 1,000 feet of a school. So immediately, the process at Bellevue was shut down. It had been the source for years for people who were trying to transition to something more permanent than a shelter. What that meant was there were far fewer places where they could be sent after leaving prison to find housing.
MM: Was that because of a change, like a school had been built?
JW: No, it was just that people had looked the other way because this was the only viable solution at the time. The change didn’t come about because there’d been any kind of incident. It was just that this legislator came out swinging, saying that we’re putting children in danger by having these “predators” at the shelter, when in fact, that was probably the safest place for them to be.
MM: What does New York City’s right to shelter mean for those with a history of sex offense convictions?
JW: It’s a really difficult problem. I don’t know that the right to shelter applies to somebody who is still incarcerated. Once they’re here in the city, there’s a right to shelter. But while they’re still in an upstate prison, they don’t have that right yet. So, there’s the bottleneck of people who can’t even make it to the city to invoke their right to shelter. The New York City Department of Homeless Services is having a terrible time freeing up spaces for people so that little by little people can be released from what constitutes prison.
Some advocates have proposed that there be special shelters for individuals who are on the registry, just so we can find a place to get them out of prison. On some level, that’s a good idea. But on another level, I worry about vigilantism. I know of someone who was released from prison, who came home to a shelter, only to find that shelter was noncompliant. He’d lived with his family in their home, and they wanted him back, but they were not allowed to have him back because the house was too close to a school. So, he got sent from shelter to shelter only to end up in a shelter way up somewhere in the Bronx, where people discovered that he was a registrant and somebody set him on fire.
Right now, I think the only shelter that is housing people with the residency restriction—and it’s questionable whether it’s even compliant— is Wards Island. There are some shelters way out on the borders of Rockaway and the deepest reaches of Brooklyn that are also housing people. It’s a huge problem. I think as long as we have that residency restriction, which hasn’t been shown to improve public safety, we’re in trouble.
“…as long as we have that residency restriction, which hasn’t been shown to improve public safety, we’re in trouble.”
MM: What’s different about the reentry system today from when you first started working in this area?
JW: There wasn’t any recognition that collateral consequences were that important or being felt. Certainly, individuals who were facing collateral consequences were feeling them, but the sheer awfulness of all the things that were piling on people hadn’t gotten the public recognition that it got several years later. I credit people with the lived experience of incarceration and the civil consequences of conviction for bringing these issues to the fore and rallying around the need to get things done. With their rallying and the support of Legal Services and other advocates, I think things changed.
It’s still changing. It’s still getting to be part of a more normalized conversation. And I think that’s good. It’s only moving upwards in terms of being on the radar of the normal citizen, which is good.
MM: How do you see the needs of people entering the shelter system from prison as being different from others’ needs?
JW: I imagine that if you polled the street homeless, you would find that many of them are people with conviction histories who encountered insurmountable barriers and ended up homeless as a result. I think prison causes terrible trauma. Prison can cause, maybe intentionally, serious mental issues for people. For people transitioning, particularly from a long period of incarceration, back into life in the city, it can be very daunting, to say the least. I think there’s a lot of adjustment and a lot of unmet needs.
MM: In October 2018, you published a policy brief entitled “Getting to Go: The case for criminal record expungement in New York State.” In that, you write that no matter how many positive strides a person has made, under our current law, a criminal record is on their record for the rest of their lives, which often acts as a barrier for housing and jobs. You make the case that this needs to change. Can you talk about this and what effect expungement could have on homelessness in New York City?
JW: Well, I think expungement could have a very positive effect. If we were able to make it so that a record did not exist anymore or was tightly sealed from public view, then landlords—private landlords in particular—would not be able to run background checks that would turn up these past convictions. We find that people who are applying for housing in the private market are uniformly turned away if a background check is done and they have a conviction history, no matter how old it was. What would be shielded from view from public housing would depend on exactly what law got passed. We would argue that past convictions should also be kept from the view of housing authorities and public housing agencies that are issuing Section 8 vouchers and other forms of housing assistance.
MM: So that would open up NYCHA housing.
JW: It would open up NYCHA. The only caveat to that is there are federal laws that prohibit housing providers in most programs from providing any federal housing assistance to people who have lifetime sex offender registration requirements or were convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine on public housing grounds.
Among other things, expungement would make it possible for people to earn a living. You would be able to get a job as opposed to being turned away, kicked to the curb, or completely ignored when you try to find employment. If people had actual income, accessing private housing would be much easier.
MM: What do you see happening with that policy brief?
JW: We think that there is a positive movement towards expungement, particularly now that there’s an effort to legalize marijuana. We’re not certain exactly how that’s going to shake out. But both the legislature and the governor are very interested in having it happen and have proposed bills that would do that. Negotiations going on right now about what form that should take in the end, but we think it is going to happen. As part of that, we are pushing to make sure that past criminal convictions for any behavior that becomes legalized are automatically expunged. If that comes to pass, then that is the first foray into the world of automatic expungement of past criminal convictions.
There’s already a law that allows people in limited circumstances to apply to seal convictions. That’s a law that was passed in 2017 as part of the Raise the Age legislation. It allows people who have no more than two convictions in their lifetime to apply to have them sealed. And there are lots of restrictions, but this law exists. There’s also understanding that it’s helpful, but not helpful enough, and needs to be amended. There’s a lot of movement afoot to broaden its scope and make it available to more people. We think that it is also another way forward towards more universal expungement.
We’ve had interest from legislators about legislation that would automatically expunge other types of convictions, so we’re working on that. I don’t think that’s going anywhere this year. But it’s good that they’re thinking about it, and we’re thinking about it, and that we’re going to work together to try to move it forward.
MM: I told you that our team wants to develop a way to provide those with a history of incarceration with resources upon release, so that they have something in hand besides just a one-way cab ride that’s going drop them off somewhere in northern Manhattan on the streets, which tends to be what happens in New York State and New York City. That’s not a good way to enter the city, and oftentimes that’s how people end up on the streets and in shelters and or back prisons because in New York City being homeless is effectively a crime.
JW: It sounds like a fantastic idea. From what little I hear about what resources and programs are already available right now, I do think that there isn’t enough emphasis on housing. I think people are desperate for housing. And any information people could get about housing would be extremely important. That said, if someone is going to be released on parole or post-release supervision, the parole officer must have some say in where they’re going. So, not all options might be available to somebody. But still, trying to work on that as early as possible before people leave so that they don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the shelter system would be an amazing thing.
“Trying to work on [finding housing] as early as possible before people leave so that they don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the shelter system would be an amazing thing.”
Off topic: another thing that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I know it’s not this simple, but why do we provide vocational training in prisons where the training is not recognized on the outside? People spend lots and lots of time getting certified to do various things, only to find out when they get out of prison that these certifications are practically useless: they have to take more programs and get more education to get qualifications that are recognized. Why can’t we make sure that training in prison is recognized? And the second thing is, why can’t we have vocational training programs that lead to granting people a conditional license when they leave prison? If you’re trained as a barber, for example, why can’t you walk out of prison with a license? It makes things so difficult. Somebody should be able to immediately practice the trade that they’ve been trained in.
MM: What do you think it would take to end homelessness in New York City? Do you think it’s even possible?
JW: Changing rent regulation, so that we could somehow rewind the tape and get back to the sorts of protections that we had in the 70s, 80s, and maybe even early 90s. Before vacancy decontrol; before major capital improvement increases could be permanently added to people’s rent even after the capital project had been completed; before the big increases that people were facing for luxury decontrol, which took many apartments out of regulation. If there were a way to reinstate regulation on some level, that would be extremely helpful. So much damage has been done that reinstating rent regulation now will freeze rents at rates that are unaffordable to many low-income people. However, it’s a proactive step that needs to be done before the damage is complete. Deregulation has transformed entire neighborhoods in a matter of a decade, and the damage is real. But it can be stopped if we changed rent regulation, and reinstated in a really powerful way.
I’m not an expert in inclusionary zoning, but that needs to be so much more robust. I read that Hudson Yards is going to build 4,000 new units of residential housing, which I think are rental, and of that, 10% are going to go to—I don’t even know, it didn’t say whether it would be low-income, it might be moderate-income people. Any protection like that is very important, and I’m glad that that’s happening. But we’ve done so little in terms of new construction to require that there be a set aside for people who can’t afford to live in these buildings otherwise.