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Houston Is Forcing Its Parolees Out of City Center and into ‘the Boonies’

Downtown Houston
Henry Han / Wikimedia Commons

Houston Is Forcing Its Parolees Out of City Center and into ‘the Boonies’

Houston has come up with a new way to make life harder for people leaving prison on parole: by forcing the programs that provide them with housing, often paired with job placement and other services, to move outside the city limits.

At the end of March, the city council approved an ordinance that imposes new regulations and inspections designed to improve safety conditions in boarding houses and other facilities. But it also requires housing for people on parole — known as “alternative housing” — or correctional facilities to be located at least 1,000 feet from parks, schools, daycares, and other re-entry housing.

Jeff Reichman, a principal with data consulting firm January Advisors, created a map at the request of advocates with public data on Houston parks and schools that drew a red dot for each school or park. There’s virtually nowhere in the city’s center where re-entry housing can now be located. “The only place they’re leaving for expanding or building new housing for these folks is out in the sticks, in the boonies,” said Jay Jenkins, Harris County project attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

While these types of residency restrictions are generally associated with people on the sex offender registry, other cities in Texas have also moved to isolate parolees. Similar laws exist in Dallas and San Antonio.

CrossWalk Center, which offers a number of services to help people released from prison and jail re-enter society, says the new restrictions will make life harder for its clients — and for the organization itself. Last September, it committed to opening five re-entry facilities by the end of August. In October, it secured a lease for the first facility, but it has been waiting for approval from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to be added to the official list of housing providers for people leaving prison so it can begin accepting residents.

In that time, of course, the new ordinance was developed and passed. Kathy Vosburg, executive director of CrossWalk Center, didn’t find out about the process until after stakeholder meetings were already over. She was informed in December that the application for her first facility, along with all other pending applications, was put on hold until the city council voted on the ordinance.

“We got caught in between getting our house approved and the ordinance,” Vosburg said. And shortly after the vote in March, TDCJ called to say it was denying CrossWalk’s application because of it. The good news is that she has been told by city officials the newly leased house will be grandfathered in, allowing it to stay in its current location despite failing to meet the 1,000-foot distance requirement. But her organization still has to go through a new and lengthy approval process. The house will have to be inspected by the city, after which it will get an occupancy certificate, which will allow it to eventually get a housing permit. She’ll also have to write a letter to TDCJ in order for the house to be grandfathered in despite the new ordinance.

“Our hope and our prayer is that everything goes well,” Vosburg said. “Because we’ve had it up and running [without residents on parole] and we’re paying for everything.… We’re in the red right now because this set us back.”

Meanwhile, CrossWalk’s other four facilities are going to have be placed elsewhere. “Where we’re going to have to go is outside the city limits into unincorporated areas,” Vosburg said. That presents big challenges. Houston is a sprawling city with little public transportation infrastructure and most parolees don’t have cars. It can easily take an hour and a half one way to get into the city center to, for example, meet with a parole officer — a meeting that itself can take a couple of hours. “What employer is going to hire you if it’s taking five hours weekly to get to parole and back?” she wondered.

So her organization is setting aside additional funds to buy a van and hire a driver to transport residents to the nearest public transportation.

“We won’t give up continuing to look inside the urban center,” she said. “But it was hard [to find space there] before.” Now it could be nearly impossible.

In 2016, about 67,000 people were released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, about 35,000 of them are on parole or supervision. Each year, around 14,000 formerly incarcerated people will come back to Harris County, which includes Houston. That’s a lot of people who need somewhere to live, especially given that parole officers often won’t allow them to stay with family and friends and it can be nearly impossible to rent an apartment with a criminal conviction. “We don’t have enough housing to house those folks as it is,” Jenkins said. “So eliminating housing is obviously not very prudent.”

The location of the housing could also impact parolees’ ability to reintegrate into society. “For [re-entry housing] to be successful, it has to be centrally located, has to be located near public transportation, has to be located near health care with access to food,” Jenkins said. “We know that when you put folks who are re-entering away from public transportation and services … they are much more likely to fail.”

Advocates aren’t the only ones concerned about what the ordinance will do. Criminal District Court Judge Kristin M. Guiney wrote a letter to the city council as it debated the ordinance, arguing that the distance requirement will hurt re-entry efforts. “As a matter of public safety, it is imperative that we all support the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals,” she wrote. “There are few outcomes more detrimental to public safety than further limiting the housing options for people who already face barriers to housing and employment.”

Several fires in unregulated, multi-resident housing facilities, one of which killed three people, originally spurred the ordinance. The city council at first said it was “about safety and regulations at rundown homes that are putting people in harm’s way,” explained Natalia Cornelio, criminal justice reform director at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

And some of the housing for parolees is, in fact, overcrowded, unsanitary, or dangerous. “We applaud the bad ones going away,” said Vosburg.

But somehow the location requirement got tacked on. “The 1,000-foot [rule] is precluding those of us that are doing this above board and with integrity and with the person at heart and not profit,” Vosburg said. “It’s going to make it really, really hard to replace all the bad ones.” If parolees can’t find anywhere to live, they could be sent to a transitional facility — which is more like a jail than an apartment complex, Vosburg said — or end up homeless and eventually get re-incarcerated for violating parole.

When Councilmember Brenda Stardig was asked for a response to these concerns, given that she was a main sponsor of the ordinance, her chief of staff Amy Peck responded, “Council Member Stardig is extremely concerned with the safety of those living in and around boarding homes/correctional facilities/alternative housing facilities/lodging facilities. The ordinance changes were aimed at identifying these homes and to make sure that they are safe.”

Advocates say they didn’t even find out the ordinance was under consideration until December or January, after the stakeholder meetings were already completed. “None of the providers that we dealt with heard about” the meetings, Jenkins said. Of the providers on the city’s own list of re-entry housing providers, “most don’t even know that the ordinance is a thing,” Cornelio said.

The first chance any of them got to give feedback was at public comments sessions in March just before the council voted. But Vosburg and other providers were relegated to last place in the lineup, despite being the first to sign up, and given just 10 minutes each to speak, with few follow-up questions from the council. “They didn’t really want to hear it,” Vosburg said.

“There were numerous stakeholder meetings, community meetings, and a committee meeting,” Peck said in response.

The city also wasn’t responsive to requests for analysis or evidence to back up the need for the ordinance. “We asked for a public safety rationale,” Jenkins said. None was given. No experts testified in favor of the restriction and no evidence was entered into the record that indicated a need for the distance restrictions, Jenkins said.

“It just seems like it was orchestrated from the start that it was going to pass regardless of what questions were asked and what issues were raised,” Jenkins said. “The quickness with which they were labeling these folks nuisances, it made all of us feel very bad, but also very angry.”

Advocates say this feels part and parcel with the way the city has reacted to other social problems — such as its criminalization of the homeless. “It just seems consistent with the culture of criminalizing something that’s difficult to deal with,” Cornelio said, “instead of providing a solution and investing in it.”