MN Dept. of Corrections report shows 25% of people released enter into homelessness

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Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is calling for more investments in housing as a state report shows about a quarter of those released from prison enter into homelessness. The Legislature passed a law in 2021 which requires the DOC to track the information.

“Until you can put a spotlight on an issue, it’s not something that rises to the point of community interest,” said Commissioner Schnell. “If we want them to be successful, which is in our best collective interest, then making sure that there is stable reintegration, stable housing is a key piece.”

The DOC collected and analyzed data from Jan. 1, 2021, through Dec. 31, 2021. The report shows that in 2021, there were more than 1,100 releases from Minnesota prisons to sheltered or unsheltered homelessness from the state’s 11 prisons.

According to the report, some people may have been released more than once in a given year, so the data accounts for the total number of releases but not the total number of individuals who exited Minnesota prisons.

The prisons in Faribault, Stillwater, and St. Cloud accounted for the highest number of releases, with more than 200 each.

“For people who have been in for a long time, many of them as they are released, if they’ve maintained positive social connections with family, that’s the game-changer because then they have places to go,” said Commissioner Schnell. “It’s some of those folks who either haven’t been able to or because of the offense history, they don’t have that good stable community-based support network. Those folks face a greater challenge.”

The individuals released from prison returned to communities across the state, from Clay County to Olmsted County. The highest number of people were released to Hennepin County and Ramsey County.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. According to the report, “… the experience of homelessness while involved within the corrections system perpetuates and exacerbates this inequity.”

Commissioner Schnell told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the information the DOC has collected highlights the need for additional housing in Minnesota.

“What we do now is we focus on investments — how is our state, how are our communities, how are our counties investing in housing?” he said. “How do we as corrections and corrections across the state really work with local community members to provide this kind of housing?”

He pledged to invest resources in creating partnerships with non-profit agencies that provide housing and build relationships with private landlords to create coalitions of people that are willing to work with those who are released from prison.

According to Schnell, case managers at each prison work with individuals before their release date to develop a housing and work plan that is sent to a county supervised release agent for approval.

“We also need to make sure that we are working on issues of release planning far in advance of a person’s release,” he said. “I think one of the things, internally, is we just need to recognize and start this process far more in advance. It’s not going to be 120 days. That time is going to have to start six or eight months before they release, especially for those people that do not have access to stable housing.”

Michelle Perrin hears first-hand the barriers people face in finding housing after incarceration. She’s the director of outreach and shelter for Agate Housing and Services.

“Everybody that I have worked with who has experienced behavior in their past that they’re not proud of — they don’t want to be defined by that,” said Perrin. “We shouldn’t define people by their lowest moments. That’s not who they are.”

She said a criminal history could create a challenging cycle as individuals try to find both housing and employment after incarceration.

“We see a lot of people get declined for their criminal history,” said Perrin. “It’s difficult for people who don’t have a stable place to live to look for employment, secure employment, and then keep employment.”

She explained there are many gaps in the system that contribute to homelessness.

“It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Perrin. “There’s gaps across the system. We have shelter, but there’s not enough shelter. We have affordable housing, but there’s not enough affordable housing. We have re-entry programs, but maybe there’s not enough re-entry programs.”

Perrin told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she’s interested in seeing more information about whether those experiencing homelessness re-enter the criminal justice system. She is also looking forward to reviewing the mitigation plan the DOC is required to submit to the Legislature later this year.

“The bottom line is that one person being homeless is too many,” she said. “Having this information out there and available for people that need these numbers to convince them, I think that’s really can be helpful and a positive thing because we’ve seen data drive change.”

Rep. Erin Koegel (DFL – Spring Lake Park), an author of the legislation, hopes it will provide a roadmap for how to address homelessness among those leaving incarceration.

“That’s really what it was all about, was getting that information and also making sure that we get a plan in place so that people aren’t being released into homelessness,” said Rep. Koegel. “We shouldn’t have anybody in homeless in a homeless situation, but when we’re talking about vulnerable people too, and people that we want to see do better, that’s scary.”

She called the numbers reflected in the report “unacceptable” and told us she will be tracking the progress of the plan the DOC ultimately implements to address the problem.

“We know that people with criminal backgrounds have a harder time finding housing, and so we really need to make sure that we’re giving them the tools, showing them where to go, making sure they have a job so that they can afford rent,” said Rep. Koegel. “It’ll be really interesting to see what this report says next year and the year after once some of these policies start being enacted.”