Decades after serving time, many convicted felons still prevented from accessing affordable housing
At the Connecting Grounds Outreach Center in Springfield, a steady stream of people, most of whom are homeless, arrive for help with wound care, food, clothing and survival gear.
Johnny, who didn't want his last name shared, has open sores on his lower legs. Christy Love, pastor at the Connecting Grounds, and her teenage daughter apply ointment and bandages, telling him to come back in a few days to be reexamined.
The 59-year-old lives in a tent in the woods, he said.
"Who's going to accept you when you're a convicted felon? You know? Even when it's 15 years down the road. It's 15 years ago. I still am branded," Johnny said.
He went to prison after multiple convictions for driving while intoxicated, and said his life went downhill from there.
Johnny hasn’t always been homeless. At a previous residence, even though the rent was nearly $900 a month, he says there were cockroaches and bedbugs, and people partying at all hours—something he no longer wants to be part of.
Love is frustrated by the fact that once a person has a felony conviction, that is always going to be a factor in finding jobs and housing.
"I've got an 81-year-old guy that I cannot get into housing or into a nursing home because of a felony conviction that he got when he was in his 20s," Love said. "And so, you know, we have even reached out to the attorney general of the state that that occurred in—it wasn't here in Missouri, but it was another state—to try to get any help that we could to make nursing homes and others feel like he's not a high risk. And we have absolutely not been able to find anywhere for him. An 81-year-old man with health issues and high blood pressure and diabetes has no place to go."
The Connecting Grounds church is housing that elderly man for now, Love said—but she added that’s not a long-term solution.
Springfield has some landlords deemed "felon-friendly" for their willingness to consider tenants with a prior conviction. Those with a felony conviction can find a list of these landlords at springfieldmopoverty.com, a website managed by The Connecting Grounds. Also, housing vouchers can be found through social service agencies.
Adam Bodendieck, director of Homeless Services, Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, said the tight housing market is impacting access to rental properties.
"Even with the promise of a subsidy to help pay for the rent and to provide case management and other supportive services. Even with these in play there are just very few landlords and property owners that have vacancies and are willing to work with these vouchers," said Bodendieck.
Marty Meyer, re-entry coordinator for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said they begin working with incarcerated individuals from day one, lining up educational and behavioral modification pieces so they can work on what led them to commit a crime.
The department tries to teach inmates how to be good renters, Meyer said.
"Unfortunately, housing is more limited to an individual that has a record than doesn't, and that's just the nature of the situation," Meyer said.
Housing insecurity can lead to recidivism among those released from prison, according to studies cited by policy makers and advocates alike.
Maura Taylor, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, has seen that firsthand as she’s worked in the social services field.
"What we know as a community is the quicker you are able to house people exiting the system and get them stably housed, help them find employment, provide some case management, that reduces future recidivism," said Taylor.
But Bodendieck said that’s very difficult to do right now in Springfield.
"We've seen households and individuals that they're getting rejected for things as simple as credit," he said. "When you factor in someone who has a criminal record, you know, and they're competing for these scarce resources against those who don't, I mean, obviously that makes it even harder."
And, as Bodendieck said, it’s not just felony convictions that make it difficult for homeless residents to find housing. Even with vouchers from agencies like CPO's One Door program, those with a history of poor credit history and evictions have a difficult time finding a landlord willing to take a risk on renting to them.
Taylor said the problem is made even worse by the fact that there aren’t enough affordable rentals in Springfield.
"We actually have money for rent deposits, utility deposits and can pay for rent for a number of months," she said. "We cannot find rentals that are affordable."
And they must find places that renters can afford once their assistance ends.
Johnny has given up on trying to find a place to live. He gets a disability check every month, but he said he’d rather live in a tent for now.
That doesn’t mean he’s given up on his hopes and dreams.
"I want to go down to the Current River where my mom and dad [are] buried. I want to get three acres, and I want to build me one of these storage sheds and put my bed up top with a wood stove, and I want to get off the grid," he said.
Both Christie Love and Marty Meyer said they want landlords to take a chance on people even if they have felony convictions in their past.
Love said she believes that people can change.
"I've seen it happen again and again and again," Love said. "I have seen people who've struggled with addictions for years. I've seen people who had a pretty extensive criminal background who have made extreme changes in their lives."
Meyer wants employers and those with rental properties to realize that everyone makes mistakes and that those with criminal backgrounds can be given another chance. He said there are approximately 50,000 people on supervision in Missouri who are potential renters.
"Just because a person has made a mistake, and could potentially have made that mistake when they were very young, it doesn't mean that they're that exact same person or it doesn't mean that they're going to be a bad renter," he said.
Love said housing is critical to helping people move to a more stable life.
"I'm a big believer that housing is essential for healthcare, housing is essential for sobriety, you know, housing is just a critical piece of us being able to be employed and stable," she said."
She believes one solution to help those who can't get into traditional housing due to criminal backgrounds or evictions in their past is transitional housing—but Springfield needs more of it. Transitional housing can help people with barriers to housing eventually get into a permanent place to live. And that’s something that The Connecting Grounds is working toward as part of a $12 million housing plan called Roots of Community.
Meanwhile, Love and her team will continue doing what they can to help those who are homeless or barely paying the rent.