The Homelessness Problem We Don’t Talk About

The punishment for a crime doesn’t necessarily end when the person has been released from prison.

Formerly incarcerated people face multiple barriers to securing housing (including public housing) and employment, which can lead to homelessness. And just by virtue of being homeless—by having to sleep on a bench or take shelter under a bridge—these people may then be targeted by the police. Thus starts an unrelenting cycle, through which people are tossed back and forth between jail and the street.   

A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) presents some troubling numbers on this phenomenon. Using a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, for which the last available year of data comes from 2008, it found that among formerly incarcerated people, the rate of homelessness that year was 10 times that of the general public.

“The results from our study illustrate the connection between criminalization and an issue that we rarely discuss, but one that has profound societal costs: homelessness,” said Lucius Couloute, the author of the report, via email. “When formerly incarcerated people are 10 times as likely as the general public to face homelessness … it suggests the ultimate public policy failure. It suggests that prisons in the United States aren’t helping people reintegrate.”

Certain subsets of the formerly incarcerated people are more likely to be affected by homelessness, his analysis finds—women of color, those who’ve recently been released, and those who have had multiple spells in prison, for example. Here’s a breakdown of homelessness rates among formerly incarcerated people by subcategory:

Compared to people who have only been to prison just once, people who’ve had a long history of going in and out of jail are twice as likely to be homeless, PPI finds. This pattern is a result of local policies that “criminalize homelessness,” the author argues, by arresting homeless people for loitering or for “quality of life” crimes like sleeping in their cars, on the sidewalk, or a park bench.

In Los Angeles, one in six people arrested in 2016 were homeless. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that these arrests were largely for minor crimes, and had increased 31 percent since 2011. This week, the city’s police chief announced a move to clear longstanding warrants for homeless individuals who had not appeared in court, but said that the police would not change how they enforce laws.

There are other cities, however, that are trying to divert low-level offenders from the criminal justice system. Seattle, for example, launched such a program for drug offenders in 2011, and preliminary research shows that it has helped reduce recidivism. The initiative gives someone arrested for a drug offense the option to forego jail time, and opt in for an array of services offering housing, health, and employment assistance. Through this program, the city seeks to sever the pipeline to jail—and potentially, to the street—at its beginning.

According to the PPI report, individuals who have recently been released from prison experience particularly high rates of homelessness. Those who have been out for two years or less are twice as likely to be homeless as those whose reentry dates back four or more years. To combat this problem, the authors recommend that states and local governments develop a coordinated inter-agency approach—something like a “department of reentry”—that helps provides short-term and long-term support to the formerly incarcerated. Incorporating the “housing first” approach, which prioritizes getting a roof over the head of homeless people, can also help nip cases of homelessness in the bud. It has been proven effective and ends up saving cities money.

PPI’s data suggests that women of color experience the highest rates of homelessness—as seen within homeless shelters and on the streets. These patterns are reinforced by, among other things, the employment gaps across race and gender that already exist among formerly incarcerated individuals, per the report. To tackle employment gaps, authors suggest implementing “ban-the-box” policies that forbid employers from asking about criminal backgrounds, taking away an additional layer of discrimination against black and brown job applicants. More and more cities have been embracing these policies. The next step is to get landlord and housing authorities, many of which still do background checks, to do the same.

“Employers are already seeing the benefits of hiring people with criminal records,”Couloute said, “the housing world should take notice as well.”

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Can Minnesota Get Dockless Bikesharing to Play Nice?

Over the last year, dockless bikesharing has galloped into cities across the United States, swiftly doubling the number of shared bikes available on city streets. The GPS- and app-based technology these services use allows bikes to float around cities, into neighborhoods where bikeshare had never gone before, or where docked systems have failed to catch on. But the venture capital-backed bike invasions have also stoked anxiety over vandalism, bike clutter, and city regulations.

Since the first dockless pilots in the U.S. began, some companies have been acquired by ride-hailing companies or pivoted to e-scooters; others have beat a messy retreat. Meanwhile, their predecessors and quasi-rivals—docked bikeshare systems like New York City’s CitiBike and D.C. Capital Bikeshare—have been slow to expand their networks as they face the next challenge of reaching new riders.

Now a new pilot proposal in Minneapolis is attempting a hybrid between docked and dockless systems. The nonprofit Nice Ride MN wants to add 1,500 dockless bikes to its existing docked network. The key feature is a low-tech but intuitive fix for keeping free-range bikes under control: put down some damn parking spots.

“It’s going to be the first site-planned, permitted dockless program that uses designated parking spots,” says Bill Dossett, Nice Ride’s executive director. “We chose given the shift toward the dockless approach that the better thing to do was to act proactively and change.”

Nice Ride first brought bikeshare to the region in 2010; in July, it signed over system operations to Motivate, the largest private operator of public bikeshare systems. The contract allows Nice Ride to hold onto the brand loyalty it built while giving the program a chance to expand—but carefully. “We have a process where quarterly we sit down with the operators, Motivate, and our right-of-way owners, the city that will relate to quality, reliability, equity, all of these goals,” Dossett says.

A Nice Ride “virtual hub,” a bike-parking solution designed to impose order on the chaos of dockless bikesharing. (Nice Ride MN)

Using just tape and signage along with the in-app GPS to designate parking or adding decals to existing bike racks, Nice Ride’s new master plan calls for about 140 new “virtual hubs” for the system’s future bikes, while also adding parking spaces next to 60 of the most popular 200 existing physical docks.

“Upholding expectations about right of way was what attracted us to this virtual station approach,” says Joshua Johnson, the mobility manager at the city’s Department of Public Works. “It will allow for the benefits of rapidly expanding access without having the disorderliness or chaos that’s associated with the free-floating systems. We’re trying to get people out of cars and on bikes by making a transportation system. That means making sure it happens with us and for us, not to us.”

This is not a completely new idea: Seattle experimented with designated bike parking for privately operated dockless bikes this year, not much more than a year after scrapping the city’s Motivate-operated docked system. And Portland’s Biketown had dockless before dockless was cool—way back in 2016—with a Motivate-operated system deploying Social Bicycles (now Jump) that could be left at “smart docks” that had a smaller footprint than the standard kiosks. But Minneapolis is the first example of introducing dockless technology to a previously all-docked system, showing where cities with legacy systems can go next.

Using GPS on the bikes to sense when riders are in designated hubs will be new, but the on-street or behind-curb parking itself will be completely familiar. “We already know how a parking spot works. In terms of the design, it’s the easiest to understand. That will bring the most level of compliance for Minneapolis,” says Antonio Rosell, a consultant at Community Design Group who’s been working with Nice Ride on the master plan.

The real innovation of dockless may be the fact that the equipment is much cheaper, so expanding the system has fewer barriers. Adding that technology to an established legacy system could be what a system like Nice Ride needs to make a dramatic expansion, quickly and cheaply. “Before a station was about $30,000. Now it’s about $80,” says Rosell. “That will make a more dense and useful system.”

This virtual hub is marked by moveable signage. (Nice Ride MN)

Nice Ride’s first round of expansion in 2018 will nearly double the system’s bike count, adding of 1,500 dockless bikes alongside the system’s 1,700 docked cousins. The plan then calls for adding another 1,500 in 2019. If usage targets are met, they’ll do the same in 2020 and in 2021. Ideally, it will come to a grand total of 7,700 bikes and hundreds of virtual stations across the Twin Cities. “It’s going to be the best of both worlds: We get the organization and the maintenance but we also get the ubiquity of bikes everywhere,” Rosell says.

The hope is that design can be a tool for ramping up bike density over the next three-year contract, filling in the existing network gaps for the relatively sprawly bikeshare map. The new station design will make it easier to find new places to leave bikes by key stops like commercial spaces, transit stations, parks, sports fields, libraries, and apartments.

(Nice Ride MN)

“It’s going to make for a more responsive community engagement process,” says Rosell. “We might have had 20 different neighborhoods saying, ‘We want a bikeshare station here.’ But before we only had funds to purchase six. With this model, if an apartment building or a supermarket says we want one here, all they need is some tape.”

The Minneapolis model stands in stark comparison to the one that other cities employed, in which a colorful gaggle of competing private operators vie for market share and sidewalk space, which has been a source of friction in places like Dallas. Twin Cities bike boosters think Nice Ride’s proposal for a more managed approach is a better fit. “Sustainability isn’t just putting a solar panel on a roof and saying it’s done,” says Rosell. “It’s building institutions that can last, that will be available to us in the future. It’s not about Company A and Company B competing by wasting venture capital. That’s not about bicycling; that’s not about equity. Sustain it, build it, and work to achieve the common good.”

Rosell says that cities should have a sense of ownership of what they’re offering up when they allow private bikeshare companies into town: A city’s trails, lakes, and rivers are also shared public resources, just like streets and sidewalks. “When you think about protected bicycle lanes, it’s a sustained investment going back 100 years into the foundation for bicycling,” he says. “We have this chain of lakes, the rivers, the paths—the city has been the steward of that.”

The city’s existing cycling community is another valuable product of a city’s investment in bike infrastructure: Despite its climate challenges, Minneapolis frequently tops rankings of U.S. cycling-friendly cities. About 5 percent of its residents say they use a bike to get around, compared to the national average of about 1 percent, as Vox reported in 2015. “In places where there are well-established bikeshare systems, it’s a fruit ready for picking,” Rosell says. “In the same way that Uber operated with the taxis, it’s a market that’s ready for a disruptive model to pirate it.”

As in many cities with docked bikeshare systems, fewer stations are currently available in lower-income parts of Minneapolis. (Nice Ride MN)

That public purpose is also why Rosell says the expansion would be so important: The limited reach of most docked bikeshare systems have kept membership for most systems stubbornly white and wealthy. “This change in technology is going to be able to bring access to more communities.” he says. “I cross the Mississippi every day going into work on my bike at the Stone Arch Bridge and I’ll see families on the green [Nice Ride] bikes and I am just imagining all of the different families having access to well-maintained bikes right next to where they live that they can drop off anywhere. Multiply that throughout our whole city and it just fills me with happiness.”

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CityLab Daily: The Rising Toll of the Drug Epidemic

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

How to get over: Yesterday’s shocking scene of a mass overdose in New Haven punctuates a still-growing crisis in the U.S. A new bleak estimate from the Centers for Disease Control suggests drug overdoses killed a record number of Americans last year: about 72,000. That reflects a rise of around 10 percent over the previous year, driven by strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to The New York Times. Though the crisis was first concentrated in small cities and rural areas, it has grown significantly in large cities. An earlier CDC study this year found a 54 percent increase in opioid overdoses in the major metro areas of 16 states that included Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Columbus. (NBC News)

As CityLab’s Linda Poon reported in April, cities and towns are racing to understand what’s driving the opioid crisis—deploying everything from real-time maps to sewer robots to diagnose what’s causing the epidemic, and craft a plan to respond. The challenge is stretching cities to their creative limits, as one first responder told Linda: “The problem is wearing people out so badly that everybody is open to any suggestions.”

Andrew Small

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An Impressive, Unnecessary, Multi-City Bridge

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is little more than propaganda announcing the unity of China and her former colonies, despite their very different historic, legal, and even transportation backgrounds.

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How a New Park Fits Detroit’s Plan to Bring Its Neighborhoods Back

The reuse of over a dozen vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood illustrates the city’s holistic approach to redevelopment outside of downtown.

Karim Doumar

What’s the Deal With Giant Games in Parks and Plazas?

Playable cities are here, and they want you to stay awhile.

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The Mass Grave Beneath a Texas Suburb

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Little Boxes

(Photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut; Illustration by Eric Keto)

Why do so many new apartment buildings in Seattle look the same? The answer, per this short video explainer from Crosscut, has a lot to do with a material called HardiePanel that’s popular in mixed-use developments. A local architect describes the fiber cement siding as a great product, though he says it’s become “overused” and “doesn’t exude a sense of permanence.” But the reasons why these buildings have become so ubiquitous in the city goes beyond their candy-colored facades.

CityLab context: You might recognize that style from the affordable housing meme that swept the internet last fall.

What We’re Reading

Warning: the e-scooter story may be more boring than it appears (Streetsblog)

What would a heat-proof city look like? (The Guardian)

Black women now lead police forces in two of America’s whitest cities, Seattle and Portland (Los Angeles Times)

If you build it, will they sponsor? (Slate)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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How One Kid Stopped the Contamination of a River

Stella Bowles was 11 years old when she first donned her rubber boots to test for water contamination in the LaHave River, which runs beside her home on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada.

“I wanted to swim in the water, and Mom’s always said no,” Bowles told CityLab. But in 2015, after hearing her mom, Andrea Conrad, say that their neighbors were using illegal straight pipes, Bowles asked her what a straight pipe was. “She explained it’s a pipe from a home’s toilet into a waterway, with no filtration whatsoever,” Bowles recalled. “I had so many questions.”

Such as: If the river has poop in it from nearby houses, how many houses?

Bowles collected and analyzed water samples, running them through a filter funnel and putting the filter on an enterococci testing card. After 36 hours in an incubator, the colonies of fecal bacteria on the card turn blue. Bowles counted the blue dots. The results revealed levels of fecal contamination above Canada’s federal standards for swimming or boating. Among those sailing the LaHave waters at the time was Bowles’ little brother.

Conrad chimed in, “You were mortified.”

“I was,” Bowles answered. “So that’s the long beginning of how this all happened.” It turned out that an estimated 600 straight pipes were sending raw sewage right into the river.

Bowles won a silver medal in a Canada-wide science fair in 2017 for her project on the contamination, and she came in first place for her age group in Action for Nature’s 2018 International Eco-Hero Youth Awards. In the summer of 2017, she helped convince the Canadian government to commit to replacing all straight pipes to the LaHave River with septic tanks by 2023 at a cost of more than $15 million (Canadian), split three ways among the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Officials plan to install between 50 and 100 septic systems in 2018, and up to 100 systems annually through 2023.

Not long after her discovery, Bowles put up a large sign on the nearby wharf cautioning that the river was contaminated with fecal bacteria. She also wanted to create a Facebook page to alert members of the community, an idea her mother later agreed to as Bowles continued to see people in the river.

Stella Bowles mounted a sign on the wharf to warn swimmers. (Andrea Conrad)

“People don’t necessarily take to that well, when you’re telling them to get out of the water,” said Conrad. “So that’s why we decided as a family, we’ll do the Facebook page and see what happens, and go from there.”

Bowles and her mom thought the page might inform 100 people that the river was unsafe, but they reached thousands within days.

“Everybody on the page was commenting, ‘This is disgusting. Are you serious? This is really happening?’ The comments were just going and going and going,” said Bowles. “It was definitely a huge talk in the town.”

“There was pushback, but not towards Stella,” added Conrad. “It was more towards the government and the lack of enforcement. And people who had straight pipes were obviously staying pretty quiet, right? Because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact they had straight pipes.”

Bowles learned how to test the water from David Maxwell, a retired physician and former university professor who found out about the many straight pipes along the LaHave River after he moved to the area. The municipal district of Lunenburg (population just shy of 25,000) had conducted a survey in which 800 households self-reported using straight pipes, and Maxwell discovered that the house he bought was one of them.

“I proceeded then to get a septic system installed, because this horrified me as a physician,” said Maxwell. “I thought, ‘This is completely unacceptable.’”

He also realized that LaHave water was not being tested, and sprang into action. “I rounded up a group of fellow citizens to collect water samples, and turned my kitchen into a microbiology lab and generated counts of bacteria for a two-year period.”

Despite him sending the results to the government and publishing them as widely as he could, the findings failed to change the limited enforcement of the law barring straight pipes.

“People didn’t take to [Maxwell],” Bowles said, “but I think the fact that I was an 11-year-old kid saying, ‘This is wrong’—I was kind of shaming the adults, saying, ‘Are you serious? Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of our community?’—it kind of pushed them into a corner.”

According to the municipal district’s mayor, Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, the Department of Environment (a provincial body) handled regulation of illegal straight pipes using a complaint-driven system. Someone would have to report their neighbor to the department for it to take action, and considering the number of households with straight pipes, there was little enforcement.

Bolivar-Getson said, “I really think the turning point was Stella Bowles—an 11-year-old’s science project.”

Maxwell noted the difference between his campaign and Bowles’s. “The essence of it is, how does the electorate influence their government? How do the people make their government do the right thing? … As an adult, I got nowhere. And as a kid with skills in social media and her own dismay at the failure of the adults, Stella really mobilized the political machine, because you can’t say no to a kid.”

Now 14, Bowles has co-written a book entitled My River that’s set for publication this September. She is distributing water-testing kits to other young people in Nova Scotia, paid for through grants and awards she received, and training them in how to test their local waterways.

“I want to show kids that science isn’t just a textbook like at school,” she said.

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Strategies for Sustainable Food Systems in Smart Cities

In addition to the needs on the entrepreneurship side, it also became readily apparent that the urban farming industry is siloed and frequently disconnected from the outside world. To address this we have created workshops and conferences that focus on bringing people of diverse backgrounds together and introducing urban agriculture to a wider audience than just ag-tech entrepreneurs.

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Utah Internet Service Highlighted in Promo Video

Spanish Fork, Utah, was recently highlighted in a promotional video touting the successes of its municipal Internet service. The video, produced by the trade group Internet Association, is all about economic development and growth — something this community of nearly 40,000 has seen since the municipality introduced the service back in 2001, and then subsequently upgraded to fiber.… Read More

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