The Wilder Foundation says offenders are a growing portion of Minnesota's homeless population. The foundation's research indicates that in 1997, 28 percent of homeless people had served prison or jail time. In 2003, that percentage rose to 42 percent. That number is expected to continue rising because the number of people in prison is growing. The Department of Corrections says that during the past six years, the state's prison population has increased by half.
Greg Owen, who directed the Wilder Foundation's research, says ex-offenders face many of the same barriers that homeless people face in finding housing, they can't afford the rent or they have credit problems. But offenders also have the additional problem of a criminal record.
"Criminal backgrounds are frequently a significant barrier to housing," according to Owen.
The Department of Corrections says having a stable place to live is one of the major factors that can help an offender avoid returning to a life of crime. Others include a job that pays a decent wage and chemical dependency treatment.
Five years ago the Department of Corrections started researching the problem of offenders not finding transitional housing. The Legislature in 2005 appropriated $1.4 million so the Department could help those leaving prison find transitional housing.
Harley Nelson, a deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, says the department still has a long way to go, but it has made improvements in helping those with records find housing. Nelson says Corrections has focused on finding housing for offenders who pose the greatest safety risk because if they're homeless, it's much more difficult to keep tabs on them.
"So we wanted to make sure that those that are the more danger to the community we have more control over them so that's our first priority is to ensure public safety so we want to stabilize that group first," Nelson said.
It's probably tougher for offenders to find housing in part because landlords are screening potential tenants more often, according to Jack Horner, general counsel for the Minnesota Multi-housing Association. Horner says screening is just good business because it lessen the risks that a potential tenant will cause problems or not pay rent.
"Running rental housing is a huge investment," Horner said. "It can be a risky venture. You can certainly make money in it, you can lose money in it. So it's important to get in residents, like any business, customers to make sure they can purchase your product."
People that help offenders transition from prison to society confirm what the Wilder statistics suggest. Finding housing for someone with a criminal record is a tough job that's getting tougher. There are more rules designating where some offenders, such as sex offenders, can live.
Roman George works for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and tries to find housing for the most serious offenders. George says he tries to convince landlords to take the risk.
"We tell them about our supervision. We're there 4 to 5 times a week and drug-testing them. We have accountability measures, visitation, maintaining a landline, maintaining and obtaining employment, following through with their aftercare program. And if there's an issue that crosses the line, by violating one of the house rules, that is a violation of our parole agreement as well," said George.
Greg Owen of the Wilder Foundation says it'll conduct another survey this coming October. As rising rents make housing less afforable, and more people wind up in jail, Owen expects offenders to make up even more of Minnesota's homeless population in the next survey.