We had a spirited discussion about voting today. Rather quickly, it turned to the subject of a felon's right to vote in Minnesota.
Quite a number of individuals in the room had first-hand acquaintance with the state law, which prohibits convicted felons from voting if they are incarcerated, on probation or parole. Some of those felons who had requalified had already voted; others stated their intention to vote, one man for the first time in his life.
Because the conversation was so positive about the right and responsibility to vote, I didn't want to redirect it to a perhaps more loaded topic—how their lives were affected daily by their status as felons.
Advocate Pat Hartman puts the relationship between homelessness and a criminal record succinctly:
A record leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to a record [...] For someone emerging from prison and trying to rebuild a life, it’s incredibly hard to get a job without a place to live, and almost as difficult to find a place to live without a job.
A man I've befriended confirmed it. He's awaiting the decision from a recent expungement hearing to clear his record of a decades-old burglary conviction—an ill-advised attempt to exact payback from someone who owed him money when his life was falling apart. The old felony had cost him jobs and still limited his housing options.
And he's not the only one.
More than 10 percent of those entering prisons and jails are homeless in the months before their incarceration. And when individuals are released, their housing options are even more limited. The California Legislative Analyst's Office estimated in 1999 that 30 to 50 percent of parolees in San Francisco and Los Angeles were homeless.
R. Jan Gurley explains how it works:
- For security reasons, neither you nor anyone who knows you is allowed to know in advance when you'll be released, making it impossible to make appointments in advance for health care, for job interviews, for housing placement, or for assistance of any kind.
- You have little money and probably no prospects for income.
- You are ineligible for almost all affordable housing and landlords typically screen for felons, which leaves you the street, a shelter, or trying to bum a night or two on someone's couch.
- Yet you may have no relationships left or your support systems are tenuous.
- You have no insurance and may have no valid identification.
Employers typically screen for criminal records, although Minnesota recently passed a “ban the box” law, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal histories when people first apply for jobs.
However, one of the groups that helped pass the law, and a primary advocate for helping Minnesota's criminal offenders get their records expunged and find jobs and housing shut down this spring.