As many U.S. cities are grappling with policing and state-sanctioned violence, there is another racial injustice that often flies under the radar: the direct line between mass incarceration and escalating homelessness in our cities. As John Jones III, Just Cities’ director of community and political engagement, knows from personal experience, the only place in the United States where a person is guaranteed a roof over their head is in prison.
John’s personal story illustrates why our organization, Just Cities, has been fighting to advance transformative change in planning and public policy.
When John was young, his teachers told his parents he was a gifted student and had great promise. He loved to read and had a thirst for knowledge. He wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up. But the road to escaping a life of poverty was cut off from him when, at 16 years old, John was tried as an adult for first-degree murder and took a plea deal, even though he did not pull the trigger or know the intention of the actual shooter.
John was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, but felt intimidated by the district attorney into taking a plea deal. As a result, this conviction became a permanent part of John’s criminal history, despite him not even being old enough to vote at the time.
When John was released from prison and returned home to Oakland, he experienced housing instability, including homelessness, for eight years, solely because of his criminal record. This lack of housing prevented John from living with his children and being the kind of father he wanted to be to them. It took the efforts led by Just Cities to pass the fair chance housing policies in Oakland and Berkeley that gave John and his family stable and dignified housing.
John’s story exemplifies the understanding that has finally penetrated American public consciousness: The United States’ mass incarceration system has always been racially unjust and has devastated millions of individuals and families, particularly in communities of color. Racial bias in policing and plea bargaining, as John experienced at the age of 16, is part of the reason why 1 in 3 Black men in the United States has been locked up.
California has led the nation in reconciling this racial injustice through criminal justice reforms that have resulted in early release for some offenders, such as Proposition 47 and AB 109. However, those returning home are still greeted by extreme forms of discrimination in employment and housing as well as other barriers to successful reentry.
As research and lived experience demonstrate, formerly incarcerated people experience significant barriers beyond the high cost of rent that prevent them from securing housing. They are screened out when applying to rent housing because of criminal background checks. Even living with family members is not always a viable solution, as it may put their families’ housing at risk — rental agreements may prohibit or limit people with criminal histories from residing in the unit.
We believe these barriers are a key contributor to the escalation of homelessness in California’s cities. A recent participatory action research project by Just Cities, The Village and the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy’s Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement found that 73% of unhoused residents interviewed in Oakland’s encampments were formerly incarcerated.
Policy solutions are available to mend these injustices. But they require policymakers to get out of their comfort zones and partner with and accept the leadership of impacted residents. This is not an easy thing to do, as policymakers are trained by their academic and professional experiences to be the experts. But this conditioning of academic and professional elitism is how a long history of racial injustices in planning and policymaking — from the violent displacement of Indigenous tribes and racial housing covenants to redlining and draconian criminal justice laws — continues today.
Good intentions will never be enough if they are coupled with elitism, as seemingly demonstrated by the city of Oakland’s homeless encampment management policy, a policy that unhoused activists believe would subject a majority of Oakland’s unhoused residents, disproportionately Black, to further displacement.
It is possible for policymakers and academia to partner respectfully and effectively with impacted residents. One such example is Just Cities’ work on the nation’s best fair chance housing policies, which were recently passed in Oakland and Berkeley. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín showed up the right way by giving Just Cities the time to design a model fair chance housing policy that was co-led by formerly incarcerated residents. He then made sure we were included in every step of the bureaucratic and political processes and that we were consulted about any changes to policy terms.
Just Cities calls this model of policymaking “transformative justice” because transformation can only occur in close proximity to one another. We are expanding our work on transformative justice by organizing a statewide grassroots leadership development institute to support the leadership of system-impacted people. This new institute will also educate the next generation of planning and policy leaders on how to disrupt the harmful conditioning they currently receive in school and government.
Besides policymakers, students and teachers must also exercise critical consciousness when they learn and teach. We must all be mindful of the deep conditioning of extraction and exploitation of communities of color that is embedded in our academic environments.
Engage in cultural humility, reach out to local community groups and grassroots leaders and ask them how you can be of service. This is how we can change the world.
John Jones III is the director of community and political engagement for Just Cities and a father of three sons. Margaretta Lin is the executive director of Just Cities, a former Oakland deputy city administrator and a UC Berkeley alumna.