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Home Sweet Home

BY: ETHAN YUANCHEN LIU

On the morning after Thanksgiving of 2009, East Bronx was shrouded in an overcast packed with freezing air and gloominess, and the few bleary-eyed people idling on the streets were wearing sullen faces. The happiness in the world was stolen – by a woman, Lisa Michelle Rappa, 42 years old, with a new life to start.

Having spent more than 9 months in a homeless shelter after she was released from prison last year, Ms. Rappa finally got her apartment this September and had just moved in.

“This is a new life for me,” said Rappa. “I don’t have my apartment since I was 19, I’m 42 now,” she paused. “I hope more people find out about it, because it’s a blessing, it’s God-sent.”

Since her first incarceration at the age of 20, Rappa had spent over 20 years shuttling between prisons and shelters. “I really can’t remember how many times I was in jail,” she tried to recall for several seconds but gave up. “But you can check my rap sheet online – it’s 72 pages.”

As of October 13, the Coalition for the Homeless reported that the NYC Homeless Shelter Population had reached 22,628. Studies show that there is a substantial overlap between incarceration and homelessness. According to a 2006 survey by University of Pennsylvania, among 7,022 people staying in public shelters in New York City, almost 25 percent of them had been incarcerated within the previous two years. A 2008 report “Incarceration, Homelessness, and Health” by National Health Care for the Homeless Council concluded that people experiencing homelessness are arrested more often, incarcerated longer, and re-arrested at a higher rate than are people with stable housing.

In order to provide the formally incarcerated individuals with permanent housing services and to help them break the cycle between prison and shelter, the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) initiated the FUSE program in 2005. The initiative today has already placed over 110 homeless individuals into permanent supportive housing, including Ms. Rappa.

CSH FUSE Program

“In a normal process people try to take the best tenants, or the best potential folks to live in, but somehow we are looking for the worst,” said Ryan Moser, the Associate Director of the CSH. “Whose life has been most impacted by the cycle, and then we get them in the housing.”

Ms. Rappa now pays $218 for the monthly rent – that is 30 percent of the federal assistance she receives because of her partial deafness, the rest of the rent is paid by the Housing Choice Voucher Program provided by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), known as Section 8.

“When homeless, some women are raped, some are abused, you face death, you see death,” Ms. Rappa said calmly. “I slept in the abandoned buildings, I slept in the cars, I have to deal with other people in order to have a roof over my head, or maybe a roof over my head for just a couple of days.”

Rappa is thankful that her everyday is very different now.

“Little things — like glass,” she said holding a glass at the dinner table, “people take it for granted but it’s precious to me, it’s so precious to me,” she said still clutching the glass as she started to cry. “And I have my own refrigerator now, I don’t have to go to a soup kitchen, and I don’t have to beg for milk. I can just open up the fridge, and grab a piece of brad, grab some meat, grab some butter. I don’t have to beg no more, I have some place to put my food.”

But, not all formerly incarcerated are as lucky as Rappa when it comes to finding a place to live. The Clinton administration called for tougher eligibility restrictions when it comes to public housing and adopted a no tolerance policy for drug use and crime, setting a tone that is still felt today.

“If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing,” President Clinton said at a “One Strike Crime Symposium” at the White House in 1996. “One strike and you’re out. That should be the law everywhere in America.”

Although such talk was derided by human rights advocates it paved the way for legislation that makes it harder for the formerly incarcerated to secure housing. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legislation that allows evictions from public housing for entire families if any single family member in the household is convicted of a crime. The practice became known as one-strike evictions.

The New York City Housing Authority updated its Guide to Applying for Public Housing in May 2008. Though it points out that “in the selection of families and in the provision of services there shall be no discrimination against any person”, it still emphasizes two steps of screening for the eligibility processing, with criminal background check listed at the top.

“You can be barred from public housing in New York for anything as limited as a couple of misdemeanor violations,” said Mr. Moser of CSH. “There is a whole chart that keeps you out.”

Hurdles also exist because the supportive housing programs and their funding providers normally set up multiple criteria for formerly incarcerated to receive housing benefits. According to Mr. Moser, the FUSE program only admits formerly incarcerated people with history of at least three times in the shelter and three times in jail in the last five years, and on top of it, they have to meet other criteria which is based on where the housing resource comes from.

“If the housing is funded federally, people have to meet the federal homeless criteria, if the housing resource is from local supportive housing agreement, they have to meet the criteria for those,” Mr. Moser said. “And for some units, people have to be homeless for a certain period of time.”

Based on data matched by the New York City Departments of Correction (DOC) and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), there are approximately 1,200 formerly incarcerated individuals who would qualify for FUSE services right now. However, despite finding eligible people in need nonprofit housing service providers like Common Ground, Community Access, Pathways to Housing, and Women’s Prison Association, etc. charge it is difficult for them to gain access into the city’s shelters to offer their services to those who qualify.

“They don’t want us to go inside,” says Mr. Jean Rice, a Civil Rights Committee Leader at Picture The Homeless, an advocacy group in New York City that has an outreach team monitoring shelter conditions. “We have to infiltrate the people inside, give them a camera and let them report to us,” he paused. “They don’t want anyone to see drugs in there.”

For most women in the shelters the outreach teams from housing groups are their only hope. “These are definitely fantastic, amazing programs that are helping people,” Ms. Sharon Price said, a formerly incarcerated woman now working for a non-profit housing organization Housing plus Solution in Brooklyn, New York. “But a lot of people don’t know about them.”

Far away from those such struggles, today Rappa’s home is a spacious and delicate one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a red stone walk-up building on Taylor Avenue, a somewhat typical street of bleakness in the struggling East Bronx. Across the street, sits a two-story house with hollow, distorted window frames and blackened surface was burned up in a recent fire.. Back inside, Rappa’s kitchenware is clean and neatly placed a dinner table is covered by a spotless white tablecloth with lace, a light-brown wooden rack in a corner of the living room supports a CD stereo player, an electric iron stand and a sewing machine crowd a storage area.. In her bedroom there is a small older model television amid piles of DVDs and under the TV stand sits dozens of Stephen King novels. And against the wall a twin-size bed is covered by her “friends” – five plush animal toys.

Not much stuff for an entire apartment, but for Rappa it is enough.

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