Two months after completing a 22-year stint in a Louisiana prison, Robert Benjamin is ready to use his newly attained freedom to reach out to young people and encourage them to choose a better path than the one that led him to jail.
“I was a renegade, but I’ve reformed, reframed, repented and redeemed myself,” Benjamin told the audience at a public hearing Wednesday at the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
The one thing standing in his way, Benjamin said, is finding a stable place to live. He’s living temporarily in a nursing home, unsure how to move forward with his desire to share an apartment with his sister at Marrero Commons, the former B.W. Cooper Housing Development.
Two years ago, HANO adopted a policy supporting reduced barriers to entry to public housing for people with criminal convictions and arrests. However, advocates of housing for ex-offenders say the agency hasn’t lived up to the promise of that policy because it never adopted the specific rules and procedures needed to implement it.
Much to the disappointment of advocacy groups, the agency has begun reviewing the proposed procedures — crafted in 2013 after a year of discussions and negotiations with various stakeholders — to determine if they are still the appropriate course of action.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first of several expected to take place through the end of the year as HANO develops procedures for evaluating the criminal background of potential residents.
Federal law permanently bars two categories of offenders — lifetime registered sex offenders and people convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine on a public housing site — from public, federally assisted or Section 8 housing. However, the law gives individual housing and Section 8 providers discretion in determining whether to admit people who have committed other criminal acts.
In New Orleans, the HANO staff reviews individual cases and makes a decision, which can then be appealed to the agency’s director. Critics say the appeals process often is available only to people with attorneys.
Two years ago, local fair housing and social justice advocates petitioned HANO’s director at the time, federal receiver David Gilmore, to change the process to provide specific and transparent screening guidelines.
Gilmore then approved amendments to HANO’s policies to say that, except for the two federally required exceptions, no one with a criminal conviction would be barred from living in public housing or receiving housing assistance solely because of that conviction.
The revised procedures were to take into account the amount of time that has passed since a crime was committed and to require those guilty of certain crimes to appear before a review panel. Those whose crimes didn’t require review panel consideration, and those who were arrested but never convicted of a crime, “shall be admitted, if otherwise eligible,” the new procedures said.
It is not clear why those new rules were not implemented.
“It’s an extremely thorough set of criteria, procedures, reporting forms, everything that needs to be done in advance of implementing a new policy,” said Jon Wool, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice, who helped to draft the rules. “It enshrines a presumption that you should not be denied public housing assistance simply because you have a criminal conviction.”
Wool and other advocates urged HANO on Wednesday to put the never-implemented regulations into force as a means of reuniting families, reducing crime and preventing recidivism.
“When an offender gets out on the street and they don’t have stable housing, that’s a huge issue. It’s a block,” said Frank Palestina, district administrator of the New Orleans office of Probation and Parole, part of the state Department of Corrections.
Palestina said his office is supervising 7,000 offenders through the re-entry process, providing them with services and courses to help them make the transition back into society.
“We really need housing for these offenders to have an opportunity to succeed,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many programs we refer them to — that is the starting point.”
The rate of recidivism — a relapse into criminal behavior after release from jail — is 47 percent in Louisiana, said Norris Henderson, the executive director of the group Voice of the Ex-Offender.
“Most of the folks who recidivate, it’s primarily because they are from pillar to post, they don’t have a place to go. (Housing) is the first step in their thousand-mile journey,” Henderson said. “The city is facing a safety and justice challenge. A part of that challenge is making people stable. We are creating a problem because we are denying people a basic human right.”
HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner said, however, that he wants to take a fresh look at the policy and the procedures, which were written before he took over HANO last year. He expressed discomfort with the all-inclusive nature of the policy and said he believes the agency needs to have more discretion in deciding whom to admit to its housing.
He used the example of a person arrested for petty theft, who under the proposed procedures would have to be admitted to public or Section 8 housing, he said. But, Fortner said, what if that person had been routinely stealing from his neighbors? HANO would need to be able to take that fact into consideration, he said.
“We need to take a fresh look at everything,” Fortner said. The proposed procedures “took away the discretionary factors that housing authorities have been given by the federal government as far as screening policies go. I’m of the belief that you can’t write a policy or procedure that’s all-inclusive because there’s always situations that come up that mandate a case-by-case determination.”
The proposed regulations, Fortner said, could be a tool but not a mandate that removes HANO’s discretion to make decisions.
Bruce Riley, who works on re-entry issues for Voice of the Ex-Offender, said discretion often leads to denial.
Criminal background policies across the nation are “very vague” and offer no real guidance, leaving individual housing authorities to make up their own rules as they go, he said.
“That discretion that housing authorities have has turned into denial across the country,” Riley said. “You don’t know how many people are being denied because they are not even applying.”
HANO will continue to have meetings on its criminal background policy, with the aim of having a new policy and procedures in place by Jan. 1, Fortner said.